Lawmakers Reach Preliminary Deal on Defense Bill

Capitol Building

The heads of key defense panels in Congress announced a preliminary deal on a bill that includes provisions to combat military sexual assault, keep Tricare fees unchanged, and give reservists more notice before a deployment.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., his counterpart in the Senate, held a press conference in the Capitol on Monday to announce that they had reached agreement on the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

The annual legislation sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

In a departure from the regular legislative process, the lawmakers urged their colleagues in the House and Senate to pass the bill in coming days without amendments to meet certain year-end deadlines.  Otherwise, troops in dangerous jobs around the world could stop receiving special forms of compensation such hazardous duty pay come Jan. 1, Levin and McKeon said.

"This is the only way we can pass a bill this year," Levin said, noting that a similar procedure was used twice since 2008.

While McKeon said he wished lawmakers had more time to debate the measure, he acknowledged that "we ran out of time."

The House will probably vote on the legislation in the next day or two before the chamber leaves for holiday recess on Dec. 13, McKeon said. If it passes, the bill would go to the Senate for a vote next week, Levin said.

The legislation would authorize about $633 billion in defense-related spending, including $527 billion for the Defense Department's base budget, $81 billion for the war in Afghanistan, $18 billion for the Energy Department’s defense programs and $8 billion in mandatory Pentagon spending, according to a statement from the House panel.

The funding levels are in line with what the Obama administration requested and don't take into account automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the next round of which are also set to take effect in the New Year.

The bill includes more than 30 provisions or reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice related to combating military sexual assault, which McKeon said "was probably one of the biggest issues we addressed this year." While it doesn't include all of the changes recommended by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the legislation offers a number of improvements, Levin said.

Most importantly, it would strip commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court-martial, Levin said.

The provision was adamantly opposed by the Pentagon brass but gained support among lawmakers after Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson III, a fellow fighter pilot who was accused of fondling a woman as she slept in his guest bedroom.

The legislative language on sexual assault would also establish minimum sentencing guidelines for offenders and allow victims to apply for a permanent change of station or unit transfer, among other changes.

While the bill would let President Barack Obama set the troop pay raise at 1 percent, it would also reject proposed fee increases for the Tricare health care system and renew combat pay and other benefits. Members of the National Guard and Reserve would get at least a 180-day notice before a cancelled deployment and a 120-day notice of a mobilization. 

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the senior Republican on the Senate panel, said if Congress doesn't pass the bill soon, important forms of military compensation would freeze after Dec. 31, including hazard pay and re-enlistment bonuses. Funding would also stop for the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, and major construction projects such as the new Strategic Command complex at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., he said.

Despite the potential repercussions, Inhofe warned there may not be enough GOP support for the measure. 

"I can't tell you that we have a commitment on the Republican side for this," he said.

The Republican-led House in mid-June passed an authorization bill that included the Pentagon's base budget request and $86 billion for war funding. The Democratic-led Senate committee approved a version of the legislation that included the same amount for the base budget and a war budget of $81 billion.

While the bill was delayed in the Senate amid a rash of amendments, the leaders of the defense panels said the compromise includes the vast majority of provisions requested by senators. 

After a 16-day government shutdown in October, lawmakers remain at an impasse over taxes and spending and haven't passed a full-year budget.

Congressional budget negotiators led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are working on a deal to temporarily replace the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions for the next two years, but nothing has been finalized. They have until Jan. 15 to reach an agreement. That's when the government's short-term funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, is set to expire.

If lawmakers extend the resolution for the rest of the year, the Pentagon's base budget would total about $496 billion, which is about $31 billion less than the initial request. However, because that's higher than the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, after the New Year, the budget would be automatically reduced by another $21 billion to about $475 billion.

It has been a year characterized by inactivity on the part of lawmakers.  Congress enacted fewer than 60 laws this year -- far less than the 88 enacted in 1995, the previous low for the period after World War II, according to a review of congressional records by The Washington Post.

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