Senate committee sets Pentagon budget at $625 billion

Senate panel members also trimmed $1.8 billion from the department and service accounts to finance training and readiness shortfalls in the military, Levin told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday. 

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The funding levels approved by the committee is $13 billion less than the $638 billion defense bill members on the House Armed Services Committee agreed to last Thursday. 

However, the Senate panel's FY '14 topline figure for Pentagon spending did match the White House's request, sent to Congress earlier this year. 

Aside from spending levels, the Senate committee adopted more than 100 amendments as part of the panel's wide-ranging budget plan for the Pentagon. 

One of the amendments effectively blocked any DOD efforts to shutter military bases on U.S. soil under by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission, according to Levin. 

Lawmakers plan to lift that ban once the Pentagon completes an assessment of all its overseas bases, to see which ones can be closed, before any domestic based are razed by BRAC. 

But the issue that attracted the most attention this year was the rise of military sexual assault, which prompted the Armed Services panel to hold a rare open session for the full committee.

During the meeting, the panel stripped out a measure in the bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would have removed the decision to prosecute major criminal cases, including sexual assault, from the chain of command.

In its place, the committee established a new, automatic review process where general and flag officers would review cases in which a commander disagrees with the military prosecutor on whether a sexual assault case should be prosecuted.

The alternative came from Levin, who opposed Gillibrand’s proposal. It passed the committee 17-9.

The bill also included provisions that would prevent military commanders from overturning guilty verdicts during a post-trial review.

In the end, committee members adopted the "the strongest and most effective approach" to tackling sexual abuse in the military, Levin said Thursday. 

Committee members also approved language to allow the Obama administration "greater flexibility" to transfer terror detainees being housed at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 

The mandates included in the Senate panel's version of the DOD spending bill will allow those detainees to be either transferred back to their home countries or moved into the United States to stand trial. 

In May, President Obama demanded lawmakers take action and shutter the controversial U.S. military prison.

While the language did make it into the committee markup, ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the effort will face stiff opposition when the defense spending bill comes to the Senate floor. 

The prison at Guantánamo Bay, according to Inhofe, "is a great asset, a great resource that we need to use to its fullest." 

That said, Inhofe and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) are already preparing amendments to remove that transfer authority, the Oklahoma Republican added during the same briefing. 

As debate over the future of Guantánamo heats up, Inhofe was certain opponents to the prison's closure will have the political support necessary to keep the facility open. 

"There are more allies in the Senate than we had before" Obama renewed his promise to close Guantánamo back in May, Inhofe noted. 

Republicans are also planning to dig in on the need for an East Coast missile shield when the defense bill reaches the Senate floor. 

Defense committee members struck down language calling for the new missile shield on Thursday, funding instead a series of anti-missile radar systems to be deployed on the Eastern Seaboard. 

The radar systems will be "less expensive and significantly more effective" in protecting U.S. borders from a ballistic missile attack, Levin said. 

In response, Inhofe said the radars were a good first step, but that they still would not provide the early strike capability against a possible attack that a full-up missile shield would provide. 

—Jeremy Herb contributed to this report

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