Congress passes US defence bill

2013-12-20 09:29
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Washington - A sweeping defence bill that authorises Pentagon spending passed Congress late on 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 $552.1bn 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 $80.7bn 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.

Sexual assault

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 Chairperson 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 criminalises 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 criticised 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.

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