Defense Bill Clears Key Hurdle in Senate

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Susan Walsh/AP

The National Defense Authorization Act passed a key test in a 71-29 Senate vote Wednesday, clearing the measure's path to passage as Congress races to finish the bill before year's end.

The annual bill that authorizes $552.1 billion in spending for national defense and $80.7 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, is considered critical for guiding Department of Defense priorities. It provides pay increases for military members, authorizes health care benefits, provides additional authority for a Pentagon program to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, and requires additional assessments of Iran's global network of terrorist and criminal groups.

Wednesday's cloture vote was a key test for the measure, which has run into Republican objections over a procedural process that did not allow for amendments this week.

Some Republicans have expressed outrage that they were denied the ability to have a full debate on amendments to the measure on the floor earlier this year. The Senate Armed Services Committee passed its bill in June, but the full Senate did not take it up until just before Thanksgiving. Democrats and Republicans were unable to work out an agreement to consider most amendments.

In order to avoid allowing the authorization bill to lapse at the end of the year, House and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders worked out a compromise in a pre-conference announced last week. That agreement afforded the Senate the opportunity for only an up-or-down vote on the measure.

Lawmakers have expressed frustration that the agreement has prevented a debate on Iran-sanctions legislation, and other pet issues like an amendment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision of whether to prosecute sexual assaults out of the chain of command.

"By denying the Senate the ability to legislate, debate, and amend the National Defense Authorization Act, the Defense Appropriations Act, and additional Iran sanctions—and by refusing the Senate the ability to vote on the authorization for the use of force against Syria—the majority leader has abdicated this chamber's constitutional role in shaping and overseeing national-security policy," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the floor Wednesday.

Fights on those issues are expected to resurface next year.

This bill does include other reforms to combat military sexual assault by providing a victims' counsel and removing the power of commanders to overturn sexual-assault convictions, among other reforms.

The bill also takes steps towards President Obama's goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by allowing foreign transfers of detainees.

The House approved the defense bill last week on a vote of 350 to 69. After the Senate's final passage, the bill will move to president's desk for signature.

Jordain Carney contributed to this article.

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