Senate approves $585B defense bill

The Senate on Friday passed a sweeping $585 billion defense policy bill that will pay for the Pentagon’s activities in fiscal 2015, and give President Obama authority to expand the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The legislation passed 89-11, and now heads to Obama’s desk to be signed into law. 

The bill’s road to passage was rocky after Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and others objected to language in it that designates 250,000 acres of new wilderness.

“Expanding the national park service is a disastrous idea,” Coburn said. “And the reason it is disastrous is our parks are falling apart.”

{mosads}In a series of procedural votes Friday, the Senate defeated Coburn’s attempts to stop the bill from moving forward.

“I believe if we don’t pass this bill there is no other train leaving the station,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said ahead of the votes. “There is no other way to do it.”

Failing to pass the legislation would have gone against Senate tradition. The annual defense bill is one of the few pieces of legislation that has always been renewed on time. Friday’s vote marks the 53rd consecutive year it has passed ahead of the deadline.

The bill provides $521.3 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget, and $63.7 billion in funding for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

It includes $5 billion for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The bill also extends for two years a program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to take on ISIS, which Congress approved in September. 

The bill maintains a prohibition on transferring detainees from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility. The White House opposes that provision, with Obama still seeking to close the prison before leaving office. 

The legislation bans the retirement of the A-10 “Warthog,” the venerated close air support fighter jet, although it allows for reduced flying hours.  The Air Force has pushed to retire the fleet as a cost-cutting move, but the proposal has met fierce resistance in Congress.

The bill also contains changes to the way the military justice system deals with sexual assault, including eliminating the consideration of a defendant’s good military career when deciding cases. 

Another provision requires annual mental health assessments for all troops in a bid to prevent military suicide. 

While advocates for military families are pleased with some elements of the bill, it keeps in place the controversial cuts to benefits that they lobbied hard against. 

Under pressure from the Pentagon’s leaders, House and Senate lawmakers agreed to charge troops $3 more in prescription drug co-pays, reduce the growth of off-base housing subsidies by 1 percent and reduce troop pay raises from 1.8 percent to 1 percent. It also cuts support for military commissaries by $100 million. 

Congressional aides said the cuts would only apply for one year, and lawmakers could decide on further cuts following the recommendations due in February from a congressionally appointed commission.

“We can’t keep going down this road where we’re trying to pick between military readiness and … full compensation for service members and their families,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who supported the overall package. “We need to look on how we can address sequester in the coming years.” 

The defense bill is named after the House and Senate Armed Services Committee chairmen, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who are both retiring at the end of the Congress.

“This is about pulling together for our troop,” Levin said. “The least the we owe them is a defense authorization bill.” 

Senators lauded Levin Friday in tributes from the floor of the upper chamber.

“Why can’t the rest of the Senate work the way the Armed Services Committee works? We don’t have enough Carl Levins,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Tags Carl Levin Jim Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act Tom Coburn

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