House Approves Defense Bill with Pared-Down Reforms

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The U.S. Capitol building is lit up with sunlight in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Capitol building is lit up with sunlight in Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 2021. (Joe Legros/Army National Guard)

A sweeping defense policy bill that would reform how the military justice system handles sexual assault cases, set up an independent review of the war in Afghanistan and more has been approved by the House.

The House voted 363-70 on Tuesday night to approve the $768 billion National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.

Though Democrats narrowly control both chambers of Congress, the compromise bill that was negotiated by the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees scuttled many Democratic priorities. In the end, more Republicans -- 194 -- supported the bill Tuesday night than Democrats -- 169.

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Among the items left out of the final NDAA was a major overhaul of how the military prosecutes almost all major crimes.

Instead, the bill contains a narrower, yet still significant, change for prosecuting sexual assault and related crimes. Under the bill, "special trial counsel," rather than commanders, would handle sex crimes, as well as murder, manslaughter and kidnapping.

Also not in the compromise NDAA was a provision that would have required women to register for the draft and another that aimed to provide the military with more tools to root out extremists from the ranks.

Meanwhile, the bill approved Tuesday would establish an independent commission to review what went wrong in the 20-year war in Afghanistan, allow troops to take 12 weeks of parental leave and specify that service members discharged for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine can get no less than a general discharge under honorable conditions.

The Senate is expected to vote on the NDAA later this week, after which President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill.

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

Related: Narrower Military Justice Reform Among Changes that Survive Defense Bill Compromise

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