By Ramsey Cox and Dustin Weaver - 12/26/13 04:30 PM EST
President Obama broke from his vacation in Hawaii on Thursday to sign a stack of legislation that included the bipartisan budget deal and funding legislation for the Pentagon.
The budget pact crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) authorizes more than $1 trillion in spending for fiscal 2014 and 2015, and creates a détente between the parties by avoiding both entitlement cuts and tax increases.
It replaces $63 billion in sequester cuts over two years, in part by cutting benefits for new federal workers and military retirees and by raising fees on airlines tickets.
Many in Washington are hopeful the budget agreement would pave the way for more bipartisan dealmaking in 2014, after one of the least productive years on record for Congress.
“It’s a hopeful sign that we can end the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven decision-making and actually work together to get things done,” Obama said before departing Washington for Hawaii.
But a number of contentious fiscal issues loom in 2014, including another fight over the debt ceiling, and there’s no guarantee that the budget agreement will ward off another shutdown in January.
While the budget bill sets funding levels, it’s up to congressional appropriators to decide how the money is spent.
With government funding set to run out on Jan. 15, the appropriators are racing to complete a giant omnibus bill that the House and Senate could pass after the holiday break.
“I think there is a will, there’s a way. We just need to work it over the break and meet these very stringent deadlines,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said earlier this month.
Obama also signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sweeping policy bill that authorizes $527 billion in base defense spending and $80 billion for the war in Afghanistan.
The bill also contains provisions that clear the way for more prisoners to be transferred from the Guantánamo Bay prison to other countries.
Obama, who made the closure of the facility a major campaign promise in 2008, called the relaxed rules a “step in the right direction.”
“The detention facility at Guantanamo continues to impose significant costs on the American people. I am encouraged that this act provides the executive greater flexibility to transfer Guantanamo detainees abroad, and look forward to working with the Congress to take the additional steps needed to close the facility,” Obama said in a statement.
But the president also criticized Congress for keeping in place what he said are “unwise funding restrictions” that ban the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to the United States.
“I oppose these provisions, as I have in years past, and will continue to work with the Congress to remove these restrictions. The executive branch must have the authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests,” he said.
The defense bill also includes 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 pretrial 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.
The Pentagon bill also allows the annual raise for service members to be lowered to 1 percent in 2014.
Obama signed several other measures Thursday, including:
- H.R. 623, the "Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Land Transfer Act," which transfers a specified parcel of Federal land in Anchorage, Alaska, to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium by warranty deed;
- H.R. 767, which expands the Federal Permit Streamlining Pilot Project to include all of the field offices within specified jurisdictions of the Bureau of Land Management;
- H.R. 2319, the "Native American Veterans' Memorial Amendments Act of 2013," which clarifies certain provisions of the Native American Veterans' Memorial Establishment Act of 1994;
- H.R. 3343, which increases the annual rate of pay of the chief financial officer of the District of Columbia from an amount equal to the rate of pay for a Cabinet secretary to an amount that does not exceed the annual compensation payable to the vice president of the United States; and
- H.R. 3487, which extends for five years through Dec. 31, 2018, and expands the authority of the Federal Election Commission to impose civil money penalties on the basis of a schedule of penalties established and published by the Commission.
— This story was updated at 5:44 p.m.