The 5 biggest defense bill fights

The Senate is poised to wage several major policy battles in rapid-fire fashion — including debates over military sexual assault and NSA surveillance — when it takes up the Defense authorization bill as early as this week.

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The annual Pentagon policy bill is always a magnet for hot-button issues and attracts hundreds of amendments, but this year a series of fights are bubbling up that make it particularly contentious.

The issue that’s attracted the most headlines is the battle over military sexual assaults, where a sweeping proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is opposed by the Pentagon, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Debates over National Security Agency spying, Guantánamo detainees, Iran sanctions, sequestration and more add up to an action-packed session before the Senate leaves for Thanksgiving.

Here’s a rundown of the biggest issues when the bill comes the floor:


Chain of command

Gillibrand and her opponents have both waged intense lobbying campaigns to win over undecided senators on her military sexual assault proposal.

Gillibrand’s bill, which would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major crimes away from commanders, is the most ambitious among dozens of proposed measures this year to address sexual assaults in the military.

The longstanding problem has prompted widespread outrage in Congress after a series of incidents and a Pentagon report estimating 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of one-third from 2010.

Many of the reforms have widespread support, including stripping commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts and requiring those convicted of assault to be discharged.

Gillibrand’s bill is divisive. She and her supporters argue that removing cases from the chain of command is needed because victims don’t believe they will get justice, and fear retaliation.

Opponents say that commanders have to remain in the judicial process, so they can be held accountable to fix the problem.

Gillibrand faces an uphill battle to get to the 60 votes likely required, as she currently counts 47 supporters after Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) signed on Wednesday.

 
NSA surveillance

When the Defense appropriations bill was on the House floor in July, the lower chamber narrowly defeated an amendment to end the NSA’s phone metadata collection program.

Since then, outrage has only grown over the NSA’s spying.

Levin, who will manage the bill on the floor, doesn’t want a repeat of the House’s July debate, where the NSA amendment overshadowed the rest of the bill.

He said last week that he hopes NSA amendments will be left off the Defense bill so they can be debated separately.

“It’s too big. I’m going to encourage them to take it up separately,” he told The Hill.

NSA surveillance critics in the Senate haven’t said whether they plan to offer amendments, large or small, that would curb NSA surveillance programs.

One reason they might hold off is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are working on opposing bills on the NSA in the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.

At the same time, the Defense bill is one piece of legislation that’s sure to pass: It’s been signed into law 51 straight years.

 
Iran sanctions

The Defense authorization bill could also become a vehicle for Congress to push new Iran sanctions as the Obama administration nears a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

The Senate Banking Committee has put its sanctions measure on hold after a lobbying push by the White House, but several senators critical of the potential for a deal with Iran have indicated they might push for new sanctions on the Defense bill.

“If the Banking Committee doesn't move, you can bet your life there will be an effort to impose new sanctions,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

The Defense bill has been used for past Iran sanctions measures, but the timing this year could make for a major fight with the Obama administration if a deal is struck with Iran.

Republicans quickly blasted the details emerging from a potential deal Friday, suggesting the Defense bill could be used to push back.

U.S. and other negotiators are offering to unfreeze Iranian assets if the country agrees to temporarily halt its production of highly enriched uranium for a few months.

“Any agreement that does not require the full and complete halting of the Iranian nuclear program is worse than no deal at all,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.

 
Guantánamo detainees

In the bill that passed committee, Levin included provisions that would give the Obama administration additional flexibility to transfer detainees out of Guantánamo Bay.

But Republicans agreed to defer debate on the provisions until the bill came to the Senate floor, and will be pushing to strip them from the measure.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) told The Hill that she and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) were still finalizing what amendments they would be offering on Guantánamo.

The transfer restrictions and other measures in Congress have prevented President Obama from making much progress in his pledge to close Guantánamo, which Obama says he wants to push for once again in his second term.

In the House bill, Congress added restrictions on transferring detainees to Yemen, which would complicate the administration’s efforts to restart moving detainees there after a 2009 moratorium. Ayotte wouldn’t say whether she was planning a similar amendment.
 

Sequestration

The Defense authorization bill ignores the spending caps under sequestration, but that doesn’t mean the legislation won’t spark lots of debate on the sequester.

The Pentagon faces a $52 billion cut in 2014 under its proposed budget if sequestration is not reversed, despite the higher budget numbers set by the Obama administration and the House and Senate budgets.

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing with the military service chiefs Thursday detailing the dangers of sequestration, where they lamented that the rest of Congress isn’t getting the message.

While the Defense authorization bill won’t spark a solution to the cuts — gridlock over taxes and entitlements has prevented that for two years — there will likely be attempts to give the Pentagon more flexibility to implement the sequester cuts.