Senate lawmakers finalized work on the $584.2 billion annual defense authorization bill on Friday, putting in place a 1 percent pay raise for troops starting in January and limiting growth in housing allowance rates.
The legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign into law in coming days, drew criticism from outside military advocates for the compensation trims, but it also ensures that authorization for a host of pay and other programs will continue without interruption into 2015.
This marks the 53rd consecutive year in which Congress has passed a defense authorization bill, but this time the measure faced a bumpy passage process in a lame-duck session.
Despite 10 months of debate on the issues, lawmakers barely found time to move the legislation onto the Senate's voting calendar, and skipped typical debate on a host of issues.
Chamber leaders also had to navigate a host of procedural moves from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to derail the measure over over land transfer agreements attached to the measure and fought off a last-minute attempt by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to tack on a massive restructuring of the military justice system.
The Senate approved the measure 89-11. House members a week earlier approved the bill by a 300-119 vote.
Earlier in the week, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the measure a good compromise, even with the unpalatable compensation trims.
Pay and benefits
For most troops, the most tangible effect of the bill is the annual pay raise. House lawmakers had pushed for a 1.8 percent raise to keep military wages in line with growth in average private-sector paychecks. But Senate and Pentagon officials pushed for the lower 1 percent raise to help keep personnel costs in check.
It will mark the second consecutive 1 percent pay raise; together, those two raises are the smallest annual bumps in the 41-year history of the all-volunteer force.
Pentagon planners said the lower raise will save the military about $3.8 billion over the next five years. Opponents argued that it gives troops less disposable income, and coupled with the 1 percent raise for 2014, is creating a new wage gap between troops and civilians.
For an E-3 with three years of service, the lower raise is a loss of about $195 a year in anticipated income. For an E-7 with 10 years, it comes out to $356. An O-4 with 12 years of service will get $664 less in annual salary.
Under a separate provision, general and flag officers will see their pay frozen next year.
Military families also will face a $3 increase in most prescription co-pays, and see housing allowances reduced by 1 percent. Both moves are also designed to rein in personnel costs, but fall short of what White House and Pentagon planners had requested.
Lawmakers said they preferred to delay long-term pay and benefits changes until after the independent Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission offers its comprehensive review in February.
That sets up another showdown over personnel costs starting this spring, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress.
Troops and equipment
The authorization bill allows for end strength of 490,000 soldiers, 323,600 sailors, 184,100 Marines and 312,980 airmen.
It also includes an extra $350 million for Air Force operations and maintenance of the A-10 aircraft fleet, and a prohibition on retiring the aircraft.
Lawmakers blocked Army plans shift Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active force. The bill also allows the Navy to stand down two ships in 2015, but gives no instruction on whether those ships would be reactivated in 2016.
Many of the funding and program provisions in the measure last only for a year, pushing long-term decisions off to the new Congress that will soon convene. Officials said they hope lawmakers can deal with mandated sequestration spending caps then, providing budget relief and better spending plans.
The bill authorizes $63.7 billion in overseas contingency funds for fiscal 2015, with about $5 billion for the current fight in Iraq and Syria
The Syria provisions allow the White House to move ahead with plans to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, and continue U.S. military support operations in the region.
But lawmakers did not include a new authorization of force for that mission, a provision that the White House had pushed for in recent weeks. Congressional leaders have stated publicly that they don't want to deal with that issue until the new Congress is seated.
Gillibrand's sexual assault proposals were not included in the final measure, but the final product does include a package of reforms designed to address the problem.
Military attorneys no longer will be able to use the "good soldier defense" in sexual assault trials, and victims will be more closely consulted on their preferences for prosecutions. Military commanders also will have their annual evaluations include their handling of those issues, and their unit's attitudes towards the problems.
On military mental health, lawmakers included language mandating new research into family stressors and suicide, as well as better tracking of suicides among special operations forces personnel.
But outside advocates had hoped the bill would go further on both issues, and vowed to push for more changes in next year's authorization bill.
The measure contains no changes to detainee operations at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, despite a renewed effort by Obama and senior Democrats to shut down the facility. Levin, who is retiring at year's end, called that omission his biggest disappointment in the measure, while House conservatives called it a significant victory.
Congress also once again rejected plans for a new round of base closures, despite Pentagon insistence that such a move is needed for long-term rebalancing of the military's footprint and infrastructure costs.
Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees will be led by new chairmen next year, and lawmakers have promised changes to ensure that last-minute legislating of the defense authorization bill does not recur.
However, Congress has made many similar promises in the past; early this year, Levin suggested the bill could be wrapped up before the November elections. But outside defense experts expect the new, all-Republican Congress to move quicker on many parts of the process.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.