WASHINGTON - The House overwhelmingly approved a comprehensive defense policy bill today that aims to stem the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, cover the cost of combat pay for the nation's war-fighters, and fund new aircraft and ships.
The strong bipartisan vote was 350-69, and puts pressure on the Senate to act before it adjourns next week.
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 represents 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.
In appealing for support, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services panel, said the measure provides "badly needed reforms to help alleviate the crisis of sexual assault in the military."
The panel's senior Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, said the legislation was critical. "To not pass this is to jeopardize our national security and not support our troops," Smith said.
Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year since the Kennedy administration. However, more than a 51-year streak is at stake.
The comprehensive bill would provide a 1 percent salary increase for military personnel, keep construction going on bases and an aircraft carrier in Virginia, and pay for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.
In the Senate, Republicans are furious with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's tactics, accusing him of tyranny for changing the rules to reduce their power over nominations last month and denying them the opportunity to offer amendments on the defense bill.
Over President Barack Obama's objections, several lawmakers want to add to the legislation a new batch of tough sanctions on Iran. The administration argues that the penalties would scuttle last month's deal on Iran's nuclear program, standing as a sign of bad faith to U.S. negotiating partners and possibly providing Tehran with an excuse to abandon the negotiations.