Military Would Get Boost for Sexual Assault Reform and Pacific Capabilities in Senate Budget Bill

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U.S. Marines at exercise Pacific Pioneer on Kin Blue training area, Okinawa
U.S. Marines secure an entry control point during a training iteration for exercise Pacific Pioneer on Kin Blue training area, Okinawa, Japan, April 20, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Hailey D. Clay)

Senate Democrats proposed a $24 billion boost in defense funding on Monday that could accelerate sexual assault reforms and bankroll the Marine Corps' effort to realign in the Pacific to counter China.

The annual spending bill unveiled by the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday would give the Pentagon $725.8 billion for fiscal year 2022, which started at the beginning of October. The federal government is currently funded with a stopgap spending measure as Congress debates funding levels.

The bill included more money than President Joe Biden had requested for defense. The legislation, produced by the committee that is currently controlled by Democrats, still must be debated and passed by the full Senate.

"It makes key investments to address the most pressing needs of our military so we don't lose ground to our adversaries, like China," Senate Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement. "It also makes common-sense cuts to underperforming programs and instead focuses on ensuring that our troops are well trained and well equipped with the most up to date technology."

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The bill provides $400 million to "accelerate" implementation of the Pentagon's Independent Review Commission recommendations to reduce sexual assaults in the military, according to a committee summary.

The commission delivered its findings to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in June, and the Pentagon has said its first wave of foundational reforms will take six years to complete.

The Senate bill also added $2.5 billion for capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region. That includes $793 million more to help the Marine Corps realize its "Force Design 2030," the service's plan to restructure to better compete with China, according to the summary.

There's $41 million more for a missile defense radar on Hawaii; $100 million more for a missile defense system on Guam; and $750 million more for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to deploy a missile-tracking satellite demonstration system.

The Air National Guard would get $1.8 billion for 16 more C-130J aircraft, and military-wide operations would get a $4.3 billion boost.

Meanwhile, the legislation would eliminate an earlier $3.3 billion administration request for Afghan security forces, as well as rescind $500 million in unspent funds, after the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban over the summer. The Pentagon has insisted it did not foresee such a quick collapse.

The bill released Monday is close to a $25-billion defense spending increase that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved in July when it advanced its defense policy bill and the House agreed to when it approved its own version of the defense policy bill last month.

But there will still be wrangling over what the final defense budget looks like for fiscal 2022.

Progressive Democrats have been hoping to slash the defense budget by as much as 10%, arguing even Biden's request was too large in the face of pressing domestic needs and nonmilitary threats such as pandemics.

Republicans and some centrist Democrats, meanwhile, have argued it's necessary to go over Biden's request to better compete with China.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution, on the last day of the fiscal year in September. That staved off disruptions in military pay and furloughs, but the measures prevent the Pentagon from starting new programs.

The Senate Appropriations Committee previously voted to approve a $124.4 billion Veterans Affairs and military construction spending bill in August, but the full chamber has not taken up any spending bills. The House passed a seven-bill spending package in August that included Veterans Affairs, but has not taken up the remaining bills including the Pentagon spending measure.

The stopgap funding lasts through Dec. 3. Senate Democrats released Monday's spending bills without Republican agreement, making it unclear whether Congress will be able to come to a deal and fund the Pentagon and the rest of the government by the December deadline.

“If Democrats want full year appropriations bills, they must abandon their go-it-alone strategy and come to the table to negotiate,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking member of the committee, said in a statement. “We need a topline agreement that does not shortchange our nation’s defense and a willingness to set aside partisan politics.”

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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