U.S Senate Sends Obama $625.1 Billion Defense Policy Bill

The U.S. Senate cleared a $625.1 billion defense authorization bill, sending it to President Barack Obama, after an earlier version was jeopardized by disagreements.

The defense policy measure for the current fiscal year revamps how the U.S. military handles sexual-assault cases while approving the Pentagon’s request for F-35 fighters and combat ships. The Senate approved the legislation 84-15 late yesterday after the House did so Dec. 12 on a vote of 350-69.

Congressional negotiators resorted to a compromise measure after gridlock in the Senate last month threatened to derail the legislation. The Obama administration backed passage of the bill, indicating the president intends to sign it. This will be the 52nd consecutive year that a defense policy bill is enacted, a record that lawmakers cite as a sign of bipartisan support for the military.

“The bill includes hundreds of important provisions to ensure that the department can carry out its essential defense missions,” Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during floor debate on the bill.

The measure sets military policy and spending targets for fiscal 2014, which started Oct. 1. Without it, troops can’t get pay raises, combat pay would lapse and the Pentagon couldn’t start new weapons programs or construction projects.

The compromise agreement authorizes $526.8 billion in discretionary spending for the Pentagon and $80.7 billion for overseas operations led by the war in Afghanistan. The measure also covers nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy, authorizing $17.6 billion.

F-35s, Tanks

The defense authorization would let the Pentagon buy the 29 F-35 jets it requested. The fighter, made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., is the military’s costliest weapons program, at a projected price of $391.2 billion for a fleet of 2,443 aircraft.

The bill also would authorize $90 million to continue upgrades of the M1A2 tank that General Dynamics Corp. performs in Ohio, a program the Pentagon wanted to suspend. It allows for the $1.8 billion acquisition of four additional Littoral Combat Ships in two versions, one made by a group led by Lockheed and the other by Henderson, Australia-based Austal Ltd.

The bill would increase the cost ceiling for the aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, being built by Newport News, Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., to $12.9 billion, making it the most expensive U.S. warship.

The measure would require quarterly reports from the Navy on its cost estimate for the next next carrier in the new class, the USS John F. Kennedy.

Northrop Drones

Each prime contract for the Kennedy would be required to have a fee structure providing incentives to meet cost requirements. The agreement would require the Navy to freeze payments if total estimates exceed the cost cap.

The measure would authorize $1.3 billion for multiyear procurement contracts for Northrop Grumman Corp.’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye surveillance plane. It also would prohibit the Pentagon’s plan to retire Northrop’s Global Hawk Block 30 drone in 2014. Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop does final assembly of the drones in McKeon’s California district.

In the effort to move more forcefully against sexual assaults in the military, the authorization measure would strip commanders of authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial and would be barred from reducing guilty findings in cases. Retaliation against personnel reporting sexual assaults would become a military crime under the measure.

‘Groundbreaking Reforms’

“Our bill does contain groundbreaking reforms that will provide much-needed assistance to victims of sexual assault while also helping establish a climate in the military in which there is no tolerance for sexual assault or for retaliation against those who report it,” Levin said.

Pressure has been growing in Congress to change the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assaults after a Pentagon survey suggested a surge in such crimes. Obama has said the issue of sexual assault is undermining trust and readiness among members of the armed forces.

The administration commended Congress “for its work to expand efforts to prevent sexual assault” in a statement issued by the White House press office.

The measure doesn’t include an effort led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, to remove sexual-assault cases from the military chain of command. Gillibrand has said she will push for a vote on her proposal as a free-standing measure. It’s backed by victims’ advocacy groups and opposed by military leaders.

Guantanamo Prison

The compromise measure would give Obama flexibility to transfer detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to third countries. In April, the president renewed his first-term pledge to close the prison that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold accused and suspected terrorists.

While Guantanamo detainees could be moved to Yemen, that nation’s government would have to show that it’s capable of prosecuting and rehabilitating them.

The bill includes a House-passed provision that would bar detainees from being brought to the U.S. mainland.

The bill would authorize $284 million to boost U.S.-Israeli cooperative missile defense programs, including $33.7 million to improve the Arrow Weapon System, $117 million for the Short-Range Ballistic Missile Defense Program, also known as David’s Sling, and $22 million for development of the Arrow-3 upper-tier interceptor, to be co-developed by Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.

The compromise would meet the request of $220 million for Israel to procure more Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system batteries and interceptors.

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