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December 15, 2013

Defense bill aims to address sexual assault crisis

WASHINGTON (AP) — A comprehensive defense policy bill that aims to deal with the epidemic of sexual assault in the military is on track for Senate passage next week.

Despite Republican anger over Democratic tactics, leading members of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Friday that they expect the Senate to wrap up the popular, bipartisan legislation before the Senate adjourns. A vote is likely on Wednesday.

“It looks good,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the panel. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was hopeful but still expressed frustration with Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to wait until November to begin work on a bill the committee had passed in June. “Disgraceful,” McCain said.

The House overwhelmingly passed the legislation, 350-69, on Thursday night, the last roll call vote before the House adjourned for the year. The strong bipartisan vote puts pressure on the Senate to back the legislation without changes even though Senate Republicans are furious with their inability to offer any amendments to the massive bill.

Reflecting the drawdown in Afghanistan and reduced defense spending, the bill would authorize $552.1 billion for the regular budget, plus $80.7 billion for conflicts overseas in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It represented a compromise worked out by the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services committees after a similar bill stalled in the Senate just before Thanksgiving.

The bill would provide a 1 percent salary increase for military personnel, keep construction going on bases and an aircraft carrier in Virginia, pay for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and cover combat pay for war-fighters. The question is whether Senate Republicans would scuttle the popular bill days before Christmas at a potential political cost to incumbents facing primary challengers.

“To not pass this is to jeopardize our national security and not support our troops,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement that the bill “provides our troops with the tools, resources and authorities they need to keep America safe.”

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