Sexual assaults, East Coast missile site top debate over Defense bill

Fights over how to counter the rise in sexual assaults within the military are expected to dominate this year’s debate on the Defense authorization bill.

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Broad, bipartisan outrage over the problem has built up after a series of embarrassing incidents and a report that found 26,000 assaults last year — an increase of more than a third from 2010.

Measures to force the military to deal with the issue are almost certain to become law — partly because Congress almost never fails to approve the annual Pentagon authorization bill.

Subcommittee markups begin this week, and the intense work on the legislation will gear up the first week of June with a marathon markup in the full House Armed Services panel. Here are five things to watch.

Sexual assault

Lawmakers already are jockeying to position their fixes to an issue that has embarrassed the military.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) measure has received the most attention. It would remove the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other felony-level cases from the military’s chain of command.

Gillibrand has gained support from a bipartisan group of about 15 senators, but her bill still faces an uphill battle — particularly with the House.

One GOP congressional aide described it as a “radical proposal” to take cases outside the chain of command — a military structure that dates back centuries — and questioned whether that would solve the problem.

Gillibrand and her supporters argue that removing commanders from the equation will encourage reporting of sexual assault crimes.

East Coast missile defense

Will a bill include a new East Coast missile defense site?

Republicans in both chambers are ramping up their efforts for a third missile interceptor site.

Sixteen House Armed Services Republicans sent a letter to the Defense Appropriations panel's chairman, Bill Young (R-Fla.), asking him to include $250 million for a site in this year’s bill.

Democrats have generally argued a third site is unnecessary in addition to interceptors already deployed in California and Alaska. Pentagon officials have also said they don’t need the additional capabilities.

But Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, gave the site’s prospects a boost last month when he issued a statement saying that if a site is adopted, it should be built in New York.

Sequestration

The Pentagon’s proposed 2014 base budget is $52 billion above the spending caps imposed by the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, but there’s little momentum in Congress to reverse the cuts.

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill Thursday that the House bill will be above the sequester caps because it will be budgeted at the levels set by the House-passed budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which sets defense spending at roughly the same level as the Pentagon in 2014.

The Senate committee isn’t saying yet what their budget topline will be, but most expect it will also ignore sequestration.

A House committee aide said they don’t want to assume sequestration in the bill because they don’t want it to be a forgone conclusion, and it’s preferable to help the Pentagon find $52 billion in cuts rather than have an unobligated sum of money if sequestration does get reversed.

Still, expect to hear complaints at the markup about ignoring the reality of the sequester — particularly with other programs across the government getting hit. Half of the cuts imposed by the sequester created by the 2011 budget deal between Congress and Obama originally targeted the Pentagon.

Guantanamo

President Obama said last month that he remains committed to closing the Guantanamo prison camp, but he hasn’t proposed new legislation to move detainees.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is expected to lead efforts to change the current restrictions preventing detainees from leaving Guantanamo.

Republicans are likely to fight to continue to keep restrictions on moving detainees into the United States — or to other countries.

The issue of indefinite military detentions of terror suspects who are captured on U.S. soil or are U.S. citizens is also likely to crop up in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Republicans want the surviving suspect labeled an “enemy combatant.”

DoD proposals

The Pentagon proposed new rounds of base closures and increases in military healthcare fees last year, and Congress roundly rejected them.

The Pentagon proposed base closures and fee increases this year, too, with some tweaks to try and win congressional support. It hasn’t worked.

House congressional aides say neither base closures nor health fee increases are likely to make it into the bill, and there’s little appetite in the Senate chamber either.