Dempsey presses Congress to act on defense bill

Donna Cassata, Associated Press

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., center, joined at right by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., right, with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., left, the ranking member of the panel, tells reporters they have reached an agreement on funding the Pentagon budget, at a news conference on the Defense Authorization Bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The nation's top military leader pleaded with Congress on Monday to complete the defense bill before year's end as Democrats and Republicans on the Armed Services committees reached agreement on compromise legislation to pay for warfighters, ships and aircraft.

Ramping up the pressure on House and Senate leaders, the panels' top members unveiled a comprehensive, $632.8 billion bill that increases personnel pay by 1 percent, covers the cost of the war in Afghanistan and takes steps to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.

The legislation — a fallback plan to a measure stalled in the Senate — does not include a 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 several men and women in the Senate.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the committee leaders insisted that the bill was imperative and the compromise the only path forward for a measure that Congress has passed every year since the Kennedy administration.

"Allowing the bill to slip to January adds yet more uncertainty to the force and further complicates the duty of our commanders who face shifting global threats," Dempsey wrote to House and Senate leaders.

The House plans to adjourn by week's end and the Senate is scheduled to leave town Dec. 20.

With a few legislative days remaining, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Armed Services Committee chairman, and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, along with their House counterparts, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, reconciled differences between the House-passed bill and the Senate committee measure.

"This is the only way we can pass a bill this year," Levin told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The fate of the bill now rests with Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and whether they will allow the measure to sail through without amendments.

McConnell would prefer if Boehner does not allow a vote in the House 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.

McKeon and Inhofe, who stood with Levin at the news conference, said they considered 87 amendments from Democrats and Republicans that were pending in the Senate and incorporated 79 in the compromise.

The two said they had talked to their respective leaders, but couldn't offer anything definitive on whether the House and Senate will vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is willing to press ahead with a vote but must get members of the Senate to agree.

Echoing Dempsey, the committee leaders said failure to act by Dec. 31 would cost billions while various programs would expire, including combat pay, hardship duty pay, re-enlistment bonuses and access to military training ranges.

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.

The compromise bill contains several provisions dealing with 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 intrusive questioning of victims, making it more similar to a grand jury.

McKeon, whose granddaughter is in the Army, said that as an "Army grandfather" he was pleased that they could agree on provisions for prosecution and prevention.

The bill also 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.

Lawmakers warned that delaying the defense bill would be an unnecessary burden to a military already reeling from automatic, across-the-board spending cuts and constant budgeting by temporary, stopgap measures.

"Over the last few years, dysfunction in Congress has had a negative impact on our military and the Department of Defense," Smith said in a statement. "If we don't pass an authorization bill, the strain on our military will be taken to a new and unnecessary level."