Senate passes $607B Defense bill

The Senate on Thursday evening passed the $607 billion Defense authorization bill that will reform the way the military handles sexual assault cases and loosen the restrictions on transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to foreign countries.

The Senate sent the bill to the president’s desk for the 52nd straight year in an 84-15 vote, after some legislative maneuvering was needed to extend the streak and quickly get a compromise bill through both chambers this month.

Nearly three-quarters of Republicans joined most Democrats in voting for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes $527 billion in base defense spending and $80 billion for the war in Afghanistan.

Twelve Republicans and three Democrats voted against the legislation, including Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and potential 2016 hopefuls Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 71-29 to end debate on the bill, showing there was bipartisan support for the last-minute defense deal negotiated by leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. But Some Republicans still insisted on dragging out the clock for debate as a protest for rushing the process and changing filibuster rules.

Armed Services leaders said the Defense bill had to be completed before the end of the year because it has a number of expiring provisions, such as special pay bonuses for troops. They argued the bill would not get a vote in a crowded calendar next year.

They also argued the bill could not be altered because the House adjourned last week. The lower chamber passed the compromise Defense bill 350-69 in the final House vote of the year.

“Because the House has already left for the year, the only way we’re going to get a Defense bill enacted is passing the bill in front of us,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday. “The bill before us is right for our troops and their families.

“This is not the ideal way to pass a defense bill ... [but] this is the best we can do,” he added.

Lawmakers had wanted amendments to the Defense bill on issues including Iran sanctions, military sexual assault, the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and the provision in the recent budget deal cutting military retiree benefits.

Republicans blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)for jamming the bill through the Senate.

“Why is it that [the majority leader is] blocking a vote on a relative amendment?” said Cornyn. He tried to table Reid’s amendments, but his motion failed in a 45-55 party-line vote.

The Senate took up the Defense bill before Thanksgiving, and had two amendment votes dealing with Guantánamo Bay detainees. After those votes, a dispute over amendments halted any more action in the Senate, and Republicans filibustered a vote to end debate.

Over the recess, the “big four” leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees hashed out a final Defense bill, merging the bill that passed the House with the measure that cleared the Senate Armed Services panel.

Republicans in the Senate were angry with Reid for preventing them from offering amendments, but 16 still went along with Democrats Wednesday to move forward on the bill without any changes.

“We’re getting sick and tired of the dictatorial way that the United States Senate is being run,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the most vocal backers of passing the Defense bill this year.

"By not even fully debating and amending this bill, you are doing a disservice to the men and women serving this nation,” McCain said.

Armed Services leaders acknowledged that the December time-crunch in the Senate over the Defense bill could have been avoided had Reid put the measure on the floor earlier in the year. Levin said he would lobby the majority leader to bring the bill to the floor earlier in 2014.

“That’s always true,” Levin said of seeking earlier votes on the Defense bill. “He knows I want to try to get the bill up earlier, he knew that obviously [this year], but he’s got a lot of things on his schedule.”

The final bill included many new reforms to how the military prosecutes sexual assault and treats victims. The bill strips commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts, changes the military’s pre-trial rules for interviewing victims, expands a special victims counsel for sexual assault survivors and makes retaliating against victims a crime.

The bill does not, however, include a controversial proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to take sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Before Thanksgiving, Republicans blocked Reid’s attempt to hold votes on Gillibrand’s amendment and a competing measure from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

The Gillibrand and McCaskill proposals are expected to get votes as standalone legislation early next year.

While the budget deal that passed the Senate Wednesday will ease the sequester burden on the Pentagon in 2014, the Defense bill spending is still $32 billion above the defense spending caps in the budget agreement.

The sweeping Pentagon policy bill will somewhat ease the restrictions on transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to foreign countries, a compromise reached between the two chambers during the informal conference committee.

The bill also allows the annual raise for service members to be lowered to 1 percent in 2014, by not taking a position on it. The House-passed bill had included a 1.8 percent raise.

Congress blocked a number of cost-cutting proposals the Pentagon had requested, including a new round of base closures or increases to TRICARE, the military’s health program.

The Defense bill also prevents the Air Force from retiring its Global Hawk Block 30 drones and the A-10 “Warthog” fleet.