Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 21, 2014

Defense Bill’s 52-Year Record Will Be Tested Once Again

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Gillibrand, left, and her allies in the Senate held a press conference earlier this year to promote their bill dealing with sexual assaults in the military. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The defense authorization bill, which the Senate looks set to debate at least for the rest of the week, is the congressional version of the movie blockbuster that has it all: An amazing array of cool hardware, whiz-bang special effects, political intrigue, spymaster secrecy and some inappropriate sexual behavior — not to mention a staggeringly big price tag.

The measure also has a unique characteristic in the annals of the modern Congress, and all the more striking given the almost totally gridlocked state of legislative affairs: A National Defense Authorization Act has been enacted annually since 1961.

That’s 52 consecutive years in which the House has passed its version of a Pentagon budget, the Senate has passed a different version and the two have been reconciled through conference negotiations. No other measure has come remotely close to that level of consistent success at mimicking the civics textbook version of how a bill becomes law. Through the deepening Cold War, Vietnam, the Reagan defense buildup, the “peace dividend” years and the post-9/11 era, the leaders of the two Armed Services panels have pushed their accomplishment rate into Joe DiMaggio territory. Like his 56-game hitting streak, the Defense authorization record has only a theoretical shot at being broken.

There’s always the chance the streak will come to an end, of course. And the next month looks to test the record’s endurance for a fourth straight year.

Clearing the conference report was one of the final things finished at the Capitol before the lights dimmed on 2010, 2011 and 2012, and there was some significant suspense each time about whether a deal would get done.

The impasse was broken every time because a critical mass of lawmakers concluded it would be globally unsettling for Congress to quit for the holidays without setting procurement and personnel policies for the world’s mightiest military power — not to mention politically untenable to leave the force without an explicit sense of direction for the new year.

And that was even true in years, like this one, when the actual budget numbers in the bill were sure to be superseded by the appropriators. (The authorized “topline” above $600 billion will turn into something closer $500 billion by the time the budget debate ends.)

Needing until the closing hours of the session looks to be the fate of the Defense bill’s authors again this year. Although the House passed its version in June, the Senate alternative wasn’t slated to make it to the floor until Monday night. And there’s no guarantee it will pass before the second week in December, allowing precious little time for a conference.

Because the Defense Department is a mind-bendingly complex organization, the American military has long been at the vanguard of social change and “must-pass” bills on any topic are fewer and farther between than ever, dozens of potential amendments are in the offing.

The managers are hoping the prospect of getting a head start on a two-week Thanksgiving recess will weaken enough senators’ resolve to allow passage by the weekend.  But at this point, there’s no clarity on that. And simply keeping the bill free of contentious riders unrelated to defense and foreign policy — to boost job creation, raise the minimum wage or change the way the government gauges inflation for the benefit of cost-of-living adjustment purposes, just for starters — will require some herculean leadership effort.

There is some certainty, though, about where much of the debating attention will be focused. These are the big three:

Iran sanctions. Preventing a vote to impose additional economic punishments on one of the world’s premier powerful powder-keg nations has become President Barack Obama’s overriding desire on the legislation.

He’s called the chairmen and top Republicans on the Banking, Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees to the White House on Tuesday to press his case for holding off on even deliberating new sanctions, which he fears would upend delicate multinational negotiations about future restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. The president is expected to provide the eight senators insight into the potential for a breakthrough in those talks, which are to become public starting Wednesday in Geneva. He’s likely to ask that they delay any sanctions discussions to see if that meeting brings a deal.

Sexual crimes. The yearlong argument about how to better combat such offenses in the military looks to be resolved with the Senate backing away from the most controversial proposal: Giving uniformed victims of rape, sexual assault and other major crimes a new route in the military justice system, independent of the chain of command, for prosecuting their alleged attackers.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y, says that’s the only way to end the epidemic of sexual violence in the ranks. She looks to have a majority of colleagues on her side, including 15 of the Senate’s 19 other women, but not the 60 votes that will be required for adding controversial language to the bill. The Pentagon’s top brass insists the culture will change only if the commanders are held responsible for changing it. The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee agree with them, and so do two women on the committee who are former prosecutors: Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

Even if Gillibrand does not prevail, the bill will still have several provisions designed to combat the rise in military sexual assaults: The most prominent would end the statute of limitation for such crimes, take away the power of commanders to overturn jury convictions, mandate a dishonorable discharge or dismissal for those convicted of sexual assault and would create a system of civilian review for decisions not to prosecute.

Guantánamo Bay. Hawks will mount another effort to hobble administration plans for shutting the prison for suspected terrorists at the naval base in Cuba.

The bill would ease restrictions on transferring prisoners from Gitmo and would end a ban on bringing its inmates to the mainland for detention or trial. Ayotte has readied several amendments that would effectively keep the current curbs in place for another year. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is resurrecting her unsuccessful campaign from last year to prevent the indefinite detention on American soil of accused terrorists who are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

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