Dempsey presses Congress to act on defense bill
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is warning Congress that failure to act on a defense policy bill before year's end would create more uncertainty for the military and undercut the nation's commanders.
Ramping up pressure on House and Senate leaders, the Pentagon on Monday appealed for quick action on a bill that would raise military pay, fund ships and aircraft and deal with the cost of the war in Afghanistan.
With legislation stalled in the Senate, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have reached agreement on a compromise measure totaling $632.8 billion, including $80.7 billion for overseas operations such as the conflict in Afghanistan.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there wasn't enough time to go through the regular process and pleaded with colleagues to back the compromise without amendments.
"It is not a Democratic bill. It is not a Republican bill. It is a bipartisan defense bill," Levin said on the Senate floor.
The committee leaders want the House to vote before it adjourns at week's end and are pressing for Senate action by the end of the year. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other leaders urging prompt action and detailing special pay, bonuses and other authorities that would expire if the bill slips to January.
"The authorities therein are critical to the nation's defense and urgently needed to ensure we all keep faith with the men and women, military and civilian, selflessly serving in our armed forces," Dempsey wrote. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.
The bipartisan defense authorization bill typically enjoys overwhelming support, but it has been caught up in the Senate fight between Reid and Republicans over procedure. Reid sought to finish the bill before the Thanksgiving break; Republicans objected that he had tried to limit their ability to offer amendments to a measure that represents more than half the nation's discretionary budget.
Dempsey's plea, combined with the bill wrapped by the four committee leaders, raises the stakes in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would prefer if Boehner does not allow a vote in the House on the compromise bill as he pushes for Senate Republicans to get a vote on their amendments.
Several Senate Republicans and some Democrats would like to vote on new sanctions on Iran, a prospect that unnerves the Obama administration amid fears it would undermine a new agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons. Other lawmakers want to offer amendments on Syria, Afghanistan and reining in spying by the National Security Agency. Some 500 amendments are pending on the stalled bill, but few legislative days remain.
If the House votes this week on the compromise and then adjourns, the Senate would still have the opportunity to amend the measure. That would definitely delay the bill until next year as the House would have no time to respond to the Senate changes.
The compromise bill seeks to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the ranks.
The bill would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions and mandate that any individual convicted of sexual assault would face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would require a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case, provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial.
These provisions were part of the bills that emerged from the committees in the weeks after the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year, though thousands were afraid to come forward.
The compromise adds another provision with strong bipartisan support that would change the military's Article 32 proceedings to limit the intrusive questioning of victims of sexual assault. Article 32 is the services' equivalent of a grand jury proceeding.
The compromise bill does not include the contentious proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers. That plan drew strong opposition from the Pentagon as well as men and women in the Senate.
The bill would bar transfers of terror suspects at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the facilities in the United States, an extension of current law. But it would give the Obama administration a bit more flexibility in sending suspects to foreign countries.