House, Senate reach agreement on defense bill
House and Senate negotiators reached agreement Tuesday on a $633 billion defense bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran, increase security at diplomatic missions worldwide after the deadly Sept. 11 raid in Libya and presses the military on possible options to end the bloodshed in Syria.
The sweeping policy bill responds to the new threats and upheaval around the globe while still providing billions for the decade-plus war in Afghanistan. It also reflects deficit-driven reductions in federal spending after Pentagon budgets have nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
The bill would authorize $528 billion for the Defense Department's base budget, $17 billion for defense and nuclear programs in the Energy Department and $88.5 billion for the war in Afghanistan.
The top Republicans and Democrats on the Armed Services committees announced completion of the bill at a Capitol Hill news conference in which they highlighted the rare instance of bipartisanship in a divided Congress.
"It can, in fact, be done," said Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House panel. "Hopefully we can set an example."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said the opportunity to "represent our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is the reason why we work together in a bipartisan way to accomplish this bill."
Election-year politics and changes in society shaped the final measure. Negotiators kept a Senate-passed provision sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that expands health insurance coverage for military women and their dependents who decide to have abortions in cases of rape and incest.
Previously, health coverage only applied to abortions in cases where the life of the mother was endangered.
Democrats argued throughout the election year that Republicans were waging a "war on women" over contraception and abortion, a charge the GOP denied. Democrats and President Barack Obama held a clear edge with female voters, which led to soul-searching within the GOP.
Negotiators jettisoned a House provision that would have banned gay marriage on military installations, weeks after the chapel at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point held its first same-sex marriage. A senior Army chaplain conducted the ceremony. The bill does include a conscience clause for chaplains.
The measure includes a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel and provides money for new ships, aircraft and other weapons. The White House had threatened a veto, but negotiators made a number of changes to address Obama administration concerns.
"I don't see anything in this legislation" that would prompt a veto, said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.
The administration had raised concerns about the new round of penalties on Iran and pressed negotiators for more flexibility. In a compromise, lawmakers gave the White House more time to implement the sanctions but balked at requests for additional waivers.
The sanctions would hit Iran's energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors as well as Iran's ports, blacklisting them as "entities of proliferation concern." It would impose penalties on anyone supplying precious metals to Iran and sanctions on Iranian broadcasting.
"We don't have any other choice at this time," said Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "I hope with the administration we met most of their objections. But so far sanctions already enacted have not dissuaded the leaders and mullahs in Tehran on the path toward nuclear weapons that would destabilize the entire Middle East."
The bill eliminated a House provision barring the military from buying alternative fuels if the cost exceeds traditional fossil fuels, a measure that had drawn a veto threat. Instead, negotiators said the Pentagon could move ahead on the project as long as the Energy and Agriculture departments make their financial contributions to the work.
The bill also watered down a House effort to require construction of an East Coast missile defense site, instead pressing the Pentagon to study three possible locations.
Months after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the bill would provide an additional 1,000 Marines for embassy security.
Reacting to the relentless violence in Syria, the bill would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on possible military options.
The bill would authorize nearly $480 million for the U.S.-Israeli missile defense, including $211 million for Iron Dome, the system designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza at southern Israel.
One of the thorniest issues in negotiations was the handling of terrorist suspects. Lawmakers finally agreed on language that says "nothing in the authorization for the Use of Military Force or (the current defense bill) shall be construed to deny the availability of the writ of habeas corpus or to deny any constitutional rights" to an individual in the United States who would be entitled to such rights.
The agreement retained a Senate provision that stops the Pentagon from sending additional spies overseas until Congress has answers about the cost and how the spies would be used.