WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly passed a sweeping, $638 billion defense bill on 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.
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.
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.