Defense Bill Nears Finish Line as Senators Renew Fight for Military Sexual-Assault Reform

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is leading efforts to limit military commanders' authority over sexual assault cases. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is leading efforts to limit military commanders' authority over sexual assault cases. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

This story has been updated. 

A new defense authorization bill will hit the House floor this week, senior House and Senate committee staffers said, but its eventual passage will likely hinge on whether the Senate can avoid controversial amendments—including a high-profile effort to change how the military handles sexual-assault cases—that could derail its support.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill next week in the final days of the lame duck, and a staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee said leaders hope to pass it under unanimous consent but acknowledged members may not adhere to that request. "We will be asking people to pass the bill without amendments," the aide said. "[But] life in the Senate is always difficult."

One potential sticking point is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's plan to separate sexual-assault prosecutions from the military chain of command, which failed to clear a 60-vote hurdle earlier this year. Gillibrand said Tuesday she hopes to attach that provision to the National Defense Authorization Act, despite Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin's indication a day earlier that such amendments would not be part of the process.

A bipartisan group of senators launched a new attempt Tuesday to move the proposal forward.

"How many more victims are required to suffer? … How many lives must be ruined before we act?" Republican Sen. Susan Collins asked at a press conference with other senators.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller acknowledged that supporters face a tough fight and a short timeline, but said that "we're going to continue to push." Yet if Gillibrand's amendment gets a vote, Sen. John McCain said he also wants a measure on sending arms to Ukraine, which could further complicate passage.

The bill also reauthorizes for two years the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State—authority that is now set to expire Dec. 11. In addition, it authorizes sending troops to Iraq to train and assist forces there.

The bill outlined by committee staffers is a compromise between the House and Senate Armed Services panels, which had been stuck on a Pentagon proposal to limit pharmacy and housing benefits as a cost-saving measure. House members opposed the cuts, but reached a deal whereby pharmacy co-pays will see a one-year increase of $3 and housing allowances will see a 1 percent decrease.

More long-term cuts—such as those outlined by the Defense Department—will be settled in coming years following a report from the Commission on Compensation and Benefits.

The proposed NDAA authorizes a base discretionary budget of $521 billion, $17.9 billion of which is designated for the Energy Department. The bill includes $63.7 billion for the overseas contingency operations budget. Of that, $3.4 billion is designated for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, while $1.6 billion is pegged for training and equipping Iraqi troops.

Staffers also said the bill includes nearly a dozen sexual-assault provisions, many of them lifted from Sen. Claire McCaskill's reform bill earlier this year. Those provisions do not address Gillibrand's chain-of-command concerns.

The bill will likely limit President Obama's ability to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, a longtime administration priority. White House press secretary Josh Earnest didn't indicate Tuesday whether the president would veto the bill if the Guantanamo language is included. "We're going to evaluate the whole package," Earnest said.

Committee aides said the bill is expected to pass the House later this week. "I don't think there's any issues [with passage] in the House at all," said a House staffer.

Gillibrand has been down this path before with her quest to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act. Last year, she tried to get the reform proposal included in the defense bill as an amendment, but, similarly, a closed amendment process blocked her path. And in March, senators voted down a motion to proceed on Gillibrand's legislation, delaying her effort.

Instead, lawmakers passed a military sexual-assault reform bill sponsored by McCaskill. Gillibrand said that bill and other reform efforts were "good steps forward," but she added that the way sexual-assault cases have been handled over the past year shows "that they still don't get it."

The Pentagon and top military officials have voiced strong opposition to Gillibrand's proposal, believing that the chain of command should be involved in deciding whether a case is prosecuted. But Don Christensen, who was formerly the chief prosecutor for the Air Force, defended Gillibrand's reform proposal Tuesday, saying it is not antimilitary.

"My prosecutors were much tougher than the commanders," said Christensen, who is now the president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims advocacy group. "...The ineffective, broken system of justice undermines the military I love."

And despite the struggles, Gillibrand's bill has gained bipartisan support. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who appeared at Tuesday's press conference with Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, acknowledged the unusual coalition. But, she said, military sexual-assault reform "speaks to issues of the heart and brings us together."

The Pentagon is expected to release a sexual-assault report this week, after being given a year to implement reforms. Pentagon officials outlined new initiatives earlier this year, including the creation of a new counseling program for sexual-assault victims.

And previous defense policy bills have changed how the military handles sexual assault, including removing a commander's ability to overturn jury convictions and requiring a civilian review if a commander decides against prosecuting.

But Paul dismissed any notion that the current system is sufficient, saying that "all arguments for the status quo, for me, fall flat."

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