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Senate debates U.S. defense policy bill amid rift over amendments

Source: Reuters - Wed, 18 Dec 2013 11:33 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Measure authorizes $526.8 billion Pentagon base budget for 2014

* Provisions to combat sexual assault, help close Guantanamo

* Republicans criticize prohibition on amendments

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Lawmakers accused the U.S. Senate's Democratic leaders of stifling debate on everything from Iran sanctions to terrorist detention policy on Wednesday as they began considering the annual defense policy bill under rules barring amendments.

The measure would authorize a Pentagon base budget of $526.8 billion in 2014, plus $17.6 billion for nuclear weapons programs in the Energy Department and $7.7 billion in mandatory defense spending. It also calls for $80.7 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations.

The bill - the National Defense Authorization Act - would add legislative teeth to the military's effort to crack down on sexual assault, and it would boost President Barack Obama's efforts to close the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The measure, which was passed by the House of Representatives last week, is expected to be voted on by the Senate this week before being sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the bill included more than 30 provisions to help address the problem of sexual assault in the military, including providing attorneys for victims and making it a crime to retaliate against people who report assaults.

The bill did not include tougher measures advocated by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who had sought to amend the measure to place decisions about prosecuting sexual assault crimes in the hands of special attorneys rather than officers in the victim's chain of command.

Republican lawmakers expressed frustration over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's deal to bar amendments on the bill. Debate on the measure stalled last month over efforts to limit the hundreds of amendments offered in the Senate.

Under a compromise deal, leaders of the Armed Services committees in the House of Representatives and Senate cobbled together a new authorization act. The House passed the measure last week before adjourning for the year. The Senate concludes its session this week.

"The majority leader won't allow a robust amendment process because he can't stomach a vote on Iran sanctions," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told lawmakers on Wednesday.

"What are our policies for preventing the ungoverned portions of Syria from becoming a terrorist safe haven? Unfortunately we will not be having that debate this session of Congress," McConnell said. "What is our policy for capturing, interrogating and detaining terrorists? ... We will not have that debate."

The NDAA is considered a must-pass piece of legislation. Failure to approve it would result in the expiration of a variety of annual authorizations, including those for incentive pay, depriving troops of about $1.5 billion in income, a defense official said.

Although the NDAA authorizes spending levels, it does not actually provide the funding. That is done through a separate appropriations bill. The Pentagon can spend appropriated funds even without an authorization act, the defense official said, but it does require authorization for some types of spending.

"The underlying bill is an important one," McConnell said. "It contains the authorization needed for key military construction projects on our military bases, for multi-year procurement that's more efficient ... and for combat pay and special pay our troops deserve."

Levin said the bill included authorizations that would permit the Defense Department to spend money on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and to help Jordan pay to secure its border with Syria, which is in the middle of a civil war. (Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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