WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly passed a sweeping, $638 billion defense bill Friday that imposes new punishments on members of the armed services found guilty of rape or sexual assault as outrage over the crisis in the military has galvanized Congress.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House voted 315-108 for the legislation, which would block President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and limit his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons.
The House bill containing the provisions on sex-related crimes that the Obama administration supports as well as the detention policies that it vigorously opposes must be reconciled with a Senate version before heading to the president’s desk. The Senate measure, expected to be considered this fall, costs $13 billion less than the House bill – a budgetary difference that also will have to be resolved.
The defense policy bill authorizes money for aircraft, weapons, ships, personnel and the war in Afghanistan in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 while blocking the Pentagon from closing domestic bases.
Shocking statistics that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and high-profile incidences at the service academies and in the ranks pushed lawmakers to tackle the growing problem of sexual assault. A single case of a commander overturning a conviction – a decision that even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel couldn’t change – drove Congress to act swiftly.
Both the House and Senate were determined to shake up the military’s culture in ways that would ensure victims that if they reported crimes, their allegations wouldn’t be discounted or their careers jeopardized.
“This is a self-inflicted wound that has no place in the military,” Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs and partial use of an arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq, told her colleagues in the final moments of debate on Friday.
The House bill would require a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for a member of the armed services convicted of rape or sexual assault in a military court.
Officers, commissioned warrant officers, cadets and midshipmen convicted of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or attempts to commit those offenses also would be dismissed. Enlisted personnel and noncommissioned warrant officers convicted of similar crimes would be dishonorably discharged.
The bill also would strip military commanders of the power to overturn convictions in rape and sexual assault cases.
Duckworth and several other Democratic women made a last-ditch effort to change the bill to allow a victim to choose whether the Office of Chief Prosecutor or the commander in the victim’s chain of command decides whether the case would go to trial. They argued that the bill did not go far enough.
Their effort failed, 225-194, but in an emotional moment on the House floor, a wheelchair-bound Duckworth received kisses, hugs and handshakes after her plea.
Despite last-minute lobbying by Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, the House soundly rejected Obama’s repeated pleas to shutter Guantanamo. In recent weeks, the president implored Congress to close the facility, citing its prohibitive costs and its role as a recruiting tool for extremists.
A new hunger strike by more than 100 of the 166 prisoners protesting their conditions and indefinite confinement have prompted the fresh calls for closure. Obama is pushing to transfer approved detainees – there are 86 – to their home countries and lift a ban on transfers to Yemen. Fifty-six of the 86 are from Yemen.
“They represent some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., who argued that Yemen as a destination made no sense since it is home to an active al-Qaida affiliate.
Countering her argument, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the nation’s intelligence experts have determined that the detainees are an acceptable risk for release and hardly a grave threat to the country.
“Holding them forever is un-American,” he said.
The senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Smith said U.S. maximum security prisons are perfectly capable of holding terrorists, with some 300 terrorists, including some of the most notorious, currently incarcerated.
The House voted down Smith’s amendment to close the naval detention center by Dec. 31, 2014, on a 249-174 vote. It also backed Walorski’s amendment to stop the president from transferring any detainees to Yemen. That vote was 236-188.
Smith said his staff worked with the White House to win votes for the amendment.
“We floated this out, they said they support it, and they’ve been lobbying to get votes for it,” he said just before the vote.
The restrictions in the House bill put it at odds with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s bill gives the Defense Department additional flexibility to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. and other countries, with the objective of closing the detention facility there.
But, in a move that reflects deep divisions on Capitol Hill over Guantanamo’s future, the committee did not hold votes on the provision in the bill, opting instead to have that debate when the legislation moves to the Senate floor.
In its current form, the Senate committee’s legislation would permit transfer of terror suspects to the U.S. if the Pentagon determines that doing so is in the interests of national security and that any public safety issues have been addressed, the committee said Friday in a statement detailing the bill’s major provisions.
Detainees could be moved to foreign countries if they are determined to no longer be a threat to U.S. security, the transfers are pursuant to court orders, or the individuals have been tried and acquitted, or have been convicted and completed their sentences.
Transfers to third countries also could occur if the Pentagon determines the move supports U.S. national security interests and steps have been taken “to substantially mitigate the risk of the detainee re-engaging in terrorist activities,” the committee said.
There are still restrictions, “but there is greater flexibility provided,” Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Thursday night. But the committee’s senior Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he would fight to have the transfer authority stripped out of the committee’s bill when it comes to the Senate floor this fall.
Inhofe called Guantanamo “a great asset, a great resource” that needs to stay open.
During two-plus days of House debate, defense hawks prevailed over fiscal hawks as the House rejected two attempts to cut the overall amount of spending authorized in the bill. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland joined forces with Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to trim $5 billion that the Armed Services Committee had added to the bill for war costs.
Mulvaney argued that “simply spending more money than the Defense Department asks for doesn’t mean we’re stronger on defense.” Van Hollen called the money a “slush fund.”
The House also rejected a measure by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., to cut $53 million that the Army National Guard spends for World Wrestling Federation and NASCAR sponsorships. McCollum had argued that as the military bemoans the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts, the money could be better spent elsewhere.