Massive defense bill clears Senate hurdle
WASHINGTON — A sweeping defense policy bill that would give President Barack Obama authority to expand the campaign against Islamic militants cleared a major hurdle on Thursday.
The Senate voted 85-14 to move ahead on the bill despite objections from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and a few other Republicans to a provision to designate 250,000 acres of new wilderness. Inclusion of the unrelated land issue has divided GOP senators but is unlikely to scuttle the bill, which the Senate should pass and send to the president on Friday.
The bill would authorize the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels for two years, and it would provide $5 billion for the fight against Islamic extremists.
The bill would provide core funding of $521.3 billion for the military, including about $8 billion in additional authority, and $63.7 billion for overseas operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite Obama's objections, the measure maintains the prohibition on transferring terror suspects from the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.
The bill would prohibit the retirement of the A-10 Warthog, the close-air support plane often described as ugly but invaluable.
The Pentagon sought cuts in military benefits. Lawmakers compromised by agreeing to make service members pay $3 more for co-pays on prescription drugs and trimming the growth of the off-base housing allowance by 1 percent instead of the Pentagon's deeper 5 percent recommendation.
The legislation would change the military justice system to deal with sexual assault cases, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a "good soldier defense" to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
The measure would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military or civilian system and would establish a confidential process to allow victims to challenge their separation or discharge from the military.
The defense bill is one of the few bipartisan measures that enjoy strong support. Congress has passed the bill for 52 consecutive years.
This year, work on the defense bill has added poignancy as the chairmen of the Armed Services committees in the Senate and House are retiring. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin is leaving after representing Michigan for 36 years in the Senate; California Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon is stepping down after a 22-year career in the House.
The bill is named for both men.