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Senate approves defense policy bill

Dec. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., joined at right by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks to reporters Thursday about the final work of the Senate as their legislative year nears to a close, at the Capitol in Washington. The Senate voted overwhelmingly late Thursday night to approve the defense authorization act, an 84-15 vote that paves the way for troops to receive a 1 percent raise beginning Jan. 1. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
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The Senate voted overwhelmingly late Thursday night to approve the defense authorization act, an 84-15 vote that paves the way for troops to receive a 1 percent raise beginning Jan. 1.

The $632.8 billion bill bill extends a number of expiring special pays and bonuses that would otherwise have ended on New Year’s Day and also includes prohibitions against any fee increases for Tricare or new user fees for the military health program by more than 1.7 percent next October.

Among the bill’s key provisions are a restriction on the Defense Department from transferring to the U.S. anyone held as a suspected terrorist at the Navy detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as allowances for detainees to be transferred under some circumstances to foreign countries.

The bill also includes about 30 provisions related to sexual assault in the military, including removing the authority of commanders to dismiss a court-martial finding, eliminating the current five-year statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault and establishing minimum sentencing guidelines for sex crimes.

There also are several provisions aimed at protecting victims of rape and sexual assault, including allowing victims to apply for a transfer to a new unit or a new base and creating a specific criminal charge in the military justice system for retaliating against a victim who comes forward.

Other adds include a provision to overhaul the military’s Article 32 process of pretrial hearings to expand rights of sexual assault victims and to reduce consideration of the military record of the accused as a reason not to press charges.

The bill also gives 171,000 military retirees and family members forced from Tricare Prime on Oct. 1, the option to return to the program if they choose.

And it changes eligibility rules for selective early retirement boards so that officers passed over just one time for promotion to O-6 would be considered by selection boards for involuntary retirement.

Notably, the bill contains no provisions for a military pay raise, setting up enactment of a presidential order issued in August that decided troops would receive a 1 percent raise.

The absence of any specific pay raise language paves the way for execution of the executive order capping next year’s increase at 1 percent.

Under a federal pay formula that remains part of permanent law, service members would have been due a 1.8 percent pay increase, and the House had approved that percent raise as part of its version of the bill approved in June.

But the Senate Armed Services Committee backed the White House proposal, and the compromise — to remain silent on the issue in the compromise version — left the decision to the administration.

In a letter to Congress in August, President Obama said he is “strongly committed to supporting our uniformed service members, who have made such great contributions to our nation over the past decade of war.”

But, he noted, the U.S. is recovering “from serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare” that require tough decisions to stay “on a sustainable fiscal course.”

The White House issued a statement Thursday before the Senate vote indicating it will support the bill as written. Singling out issues including the transfer of Guantanamo detainees and changes to military sexual assault prosecution and protection, administration officials said they were “pleased with the modifications and improvements” that addressed their objections to earlier iterations of the legislation.

“Although the bill includes a number of provisions that restrict or limit the Defense Department’s ability to align military capabilities and force structure with the President's strategy and implement certain efficiencies ... the Administration supports passage of the legislation,” the White House according to the White House statement.

The bill, H.R. 3304, provides $552.1 billion for the military budget and $80.7 billion for overseas contingency operations.

It passed the House last week, 332-94.

Bill negotiator Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, described the bipartisan legislation as “good for national security” as well as for the men and women of the armed forces.

“This bill ensures that important pay and benefits, including combat pay, will continue; includes powerful and important new tools in our fight against military sexual assault; and makes progress toward the day we can close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay,” Levin said.

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