Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is urging passage of a compromise $632.8 billion defense policy bill. (Paul J. Richards / AFP)
Congressional negotiators unveiled a compromise $632.8 billion defense policy bill on Monday that they hope can pass the House and Senate by Christmas to avoid disruption in military programs.
It includes an extension of expiring special pays and bonuses that will otherwise expire on Jan. 1, a prohibition against creating any new Tricare user fees and raising any existing fees by more than 1.7 percent next October, and includes hundreds of other provisions affecting service members, retirees and their families.
The result of negotiations involving the so-called “Big Four” on defense, the chairmen and ranking minority party members of the House and Senate armed services committees, the bill represents the only chance for a National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 to pass Congress before Jan. 1, the leaders said.
“The four of us have reached agreement on a bill that we hope will be passed by the House before it recesses this Friday,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. “It is not the preferred course. It just happens to be the only course.”
Levin and Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said the bill crafted by their staffs is designed to be a compromise that can pass the House and Senate. Whether it will pass is not yet clear.
McKeon said he had spoken with House Republican leaders about the bill, but no decisions have been made about when or even if to bring it to a vote. House passage doesn’t guarantee the Senate would pass the bill or pass the exact same version of the bill. Any change made by the Senate could derail the process.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is urging passage. A Dec. 9 letter from Dempsey to congressional leaders pleads for the bill to pass because of a number of expiring programs, including counterdrug and counterterrorism activities, new starts of weapons programs and multiyear procurement programs and programs supporting military operations in Afghanistan.
Calling the bill “critical to the nation’s defense” and to keeping faith with service members and defense civilians, Dempsey said not passing the bill before January “adds yet more uncertainty to the force and further complicates the duty of our commanders who face shifting global threats.
“I also fear that delay may put the entire bill at risk, protracting this uncertainty and impacting our global influence,” Dempsey said.
Congress is in this fix over passage of the defense policy bill because the Senate was unable before Thanksgiving to find a way to move a bill that was weighted down with more than 500 pending amendments.
Without the bill, the services will lose authority on Jan. 1 to pay bonuses and special pays, including enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses and combat pay for deployed troops.
Levin said there is no way the Senate could handle those amendments before the House of Representatives leaves for the year on Friday, and that passage of the bill in January could not be assured because Congress faces the threat of another government shutdown in January and another debt crisis in February.
This is the only path to a bill,” Levin said.
Without the bill, the Navy would have to halt construction of an aircraft carrier because construction costs would exceed a cap in current law.
Other vital programs also would be disrupted, including aid to allies and efforts to monitor Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.
Senior aides said they believe Congress would pass some temporary measure to prevent problems with personnel bonuses and special pays, but action on other defense issues would be delayed months into 2014 because Congress must address budget and debt limit issues in January and February.
Passage of the compromise is not certain because there are members of both parties who will not agree on some details and, especially in the Senate, will not be pleased that their particular issues are not addressed.
“There will be discomfort with the fact some amendments were not considered,” said one aide.
Compromises were reached on some thorny issues that may leave many people dissatisfied.
For example, the final bill prohibits the Defense Department from transferring to the U.S. anyone detained as a suspected terrorist at the Navy facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but allows detainees to be transferred under some circumstances to foreign countries where they could be released.
The bill also does not authorize an East Coast missile defense site, a high priority for some lawmakers.
However, senior armed services committee aides said a bipartisan and bicameral agreement was reached on a bill viewed as too important to not pass.
Work on a “Plan B” for handling the annual bill had started in August with meetings between the staffs of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, when there were signs that the Senate would have problems passing its version of the bill.
The agreement is based on the version of the bill passed by the House in June and the version now pending in the Senate, plus about 80 of the pending Senate amendments that had received informal approval.
The result, according to senior aides, is a bill that’s pretty close to what would have resulted from the normal legislative process.
Some last-minute adds to the bill include a proposal from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., 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.
Also added is a proposal sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that changes the 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.
The agreement includes several expected provisions.
The bill includes about 30 provisions related to sexual assault in the military, including stripping commanders of their authority to dismiss a court-martial finding, removing the current five-year statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault and establishing minimum sentencing guidelines for sex crimes. There 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.
While full details of the bill are not yet available, the measure expands religious freedoms of chaplains and service members to express their religious beliefs, which could include statements of opposition to homosexuals and homosexual lifestyles.