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.

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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 CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (R-Texas) and potential 2016 hopefuls Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulBooker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Trump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen Bottom line MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMichael Bennet declared cancer-free, paving way for possible 2020 run Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes O'Rourke sweeps through Virginia looking to energize campaign MORE (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 LevinCarl Milton LevinListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel | Hand recount for Florida Senate race MORE (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 ReidHarry Mason ReidSanders courts GOP voters with 'Medicare for All' plan Glamorization of the filibuster must end Schumer won't rule out killing filibuster MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders Juan Williams: The high price of working for Trump MORE (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 GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandResurfaced Buttigieg yearbook named him 'most likely to be president' Court orders EPA to make final decision on banning controversial pesticide Buttigieg says he wouldn't be opposed to having Phish play at his inauguration MORE (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 McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillBig Dem names show little interest in Senate Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill Endorsements? Biden can't count on a flood from the Senate MORE (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.