Week ahead: House panel to mark up Defense authorization bill

This year, as always, there are a host of contentious issues that will be considered.

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The biggest debate revolves around sexual assault and the military, a hot issue after a Pentagon report estimated there were 26,000 assaults last year.

The Armed Services Personnel subcommittee included measures in legislation it approved last month that would bar commanders from being able to overturn guilty verdicts in a post-trial review process.

That change to the military judicial code has been endorsed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, but some lawmakers want to go further and take the cases outside of the military’s chain of command. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) is expected to offer amendments to do so during this week’s markup.

The day before the House panel markup, the Senate Armed Services Committee will host the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and all of the service secretaries in a rare joint appearance to testify on the various sexual assault proposals.

The hearing will have 20 witnesses in all — including 12 top military officials on one panel — and it will give the military brass an opportunity to weigh in on what they think should be done to curb sexual assaults within the ranks.

The bill with the most at stake is likely Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.), which proposes giving the decision to prosecute major criminal cases like sexual assault to military prosecutors and not commanders.

Gillibrand has made a major push for her legislation, with some support on both sides of the aisle, but Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and other senior lawmakers on the committee haven’t signed on.

In addition to sexual assault, there are a number of other issues to watch out for as the Defense authorization bill goes through the sausage-making machinery this week.

One of the fiercest surrounds a potential third East Coast missile defense site.

Republicans on the House Armed Services panel have said they will include $250 million to fund the new site, while Democrats argue that it isn’t necessary.

There’s also surely going to be plenty of talk surrounding sequestration, as the Pentagon’s 2014 budget proposal is $52 billion above the caps set by the Budget Control Act.

The bill from the House Armed Services panel, however, is not expected to take the lower Defense budget figures into account, just as the House-passed budget did not.

The busy week for the committee begins Monday morning, when it will release the chairman’s mark of the authorization legislation. That bill from Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) will serve as the jumping off point for the slew of proposed amendments that will follow two days later.