WASHINGTON - A sweeping defence bill that authorizes Pentagon spending passed Congress late Thursday, assuring funding through 2014 while easing detainee transfers from Guantanamo and cracking down on sexual assault in the military.
The compromise legislation, which passed 84-15 with broad bipartisan support in the Senate, allocates some $552.1 billion for military spending on bases and equipment as well as troop training and resources, and allows for a one percent raise in military salaries. The National Defence Authorization Act also provides $80.7 billion for overseas contingency operations, namely the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Passage ensures an NDAA will be signed into law on time for the 53rd consecutive year, something that appeared to be in doubt earlier this month when tussles over other legislation like the recently-passed budget agreement and executive nominations stalled the defence bill. The process angered several Republican lawmakers because in the rush to pass the measure, they were not allowed to introduce or debate key amendments.
Some Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham, had wanted to attach an amendment imposing tough new economic sanctions on Iran.
In the aftermath, bipartisan negotiators from both the Senate and House of Representatives hashed out a compromise bill. Last week it won overwhelming approval from the House.
Obama has expressed support for the bill, and the White House reiterated its backing Thursday.
“Overall, the administration is pleased with the modifications and improvements contained in the bill that address most of the administration’s significant objections with earlier versions regarding these issues,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The bill includes language that eases restrictions on the president’s ability for transferring Guantanamo detainees overseas, a potential first step toward meeting his 2008 campaign pledge to close the controversial prison for terror suspects in Cuba. But it retains prohibitions on transferring the detainees to the United States, a provision sought by Republicans.
One of the bill’s primary authors, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, hailed its passage as “a strong bipartisan statement that, despite our differences, we can come together and accomplish important business for the good of the country.”
He also noted that legislation “makes progress toward the day we can close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.”
In the Senate, women lawmakers on both sides of the aisle led a months-long effort to crack down on sexual assault within military ranks, and their persistence will result in major changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Some 30 provisions address the problem. The bill includes a whistleblowing measure which criminalizes retaliation against those who report sex crimes, provides counsel for victims, and strips military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions.
But it notably left out an amendment by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand seeking to remove sex crime prosecutions from the military chain of command.
Democrat Gillibrand was among several lawmakers who harshly criticized military chiefs at a June hearing for failing to address the issue.
She bluntly told chastened top brass that part of the problem is that “not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape.”
The NDAA marks the final major legislation of the congressional calendar.
Meanwhile, the White House warned Thursday that President Barack Obama would veto a bill threatening new sanctions on Iran, because it could sink a final deal to stop Tehran getting a nuclear bomb.
The legislation, backed by both Democratic and Republican senators, would impose new sanctions on Tehran if it violated a six-month interim nuclear agreement reached last month or if no final deal is reached.
The White House appears alarmed that the move could undermine the Iranian negotiating team or offer the Islamic republic an excuse to walk away from the negotiations.
“This action is unnecessary,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We don’t think it will be enacted. If it were enacted, the president would veto it.
“It is very important to refrain from taking an action that would potentially disrupt the opportunity here for a diplomatic resolution of this challenge.”
Twenty-six US senators introduced new Iran sanctions legislation earlier Thursday, despite an intense White House lobbying campaign, which has included the president himself and warnings that the alternative to diplomacy is a new war in the Middle East.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, fellow Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith,” said Menendez in a statement introducing the legislation.
It was not immediately clear if or when the bill could see a vote. Action this year is highly unlikely, with the Senate set to recess this week until early 2014.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he is opposed to bringing such a bill to the floor in January, saying he agreed with the Obama administration’s call to give the delicate negotiations a chance to work.
Should the landmark interim deal collapse, the proposed sanctions would require Iran to reduce its oil production and would apply new penalties to the Islamic republic’s engineering, mining and construction industries.
The new legislation was introduced as negotiations were set to resume Thursday in Geneva between Iran and world powers in the so-called P5+1: the United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany.
Kirk warned that “appeasing” Iran would lead to war and said that any sanctions relief obtained by Iran would be converted immediately to more nuclear components and financing for terrorism.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pledged that Congress would amass the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto if Obama wielded it.
He also argued that the threat of new sanctions would strengthen Obama’s hand in diplomatic talks with Iran rather than scupper the process.
“New sanctions tells the international community that we’re serious,” he said.
There were also signs Thursday that Democratic opinion in the Senate is split.
Ten Democratic committee chairs, including Banking panel leader Tim Johnson and Armed Services leader Carl Levin, expressed opposition to more sanctions.