WASHINGTON — A $625 billion defense bill that establishes military policy stalled in the Senate on Wednesday as Democrats and Republicans struggled over how to move ahead on the massive measure.
Republicans insist on an open process that would allow them to vote on amendments to the popular defense authorization bill that has become law every year for the past half century. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is trying to limit amendments and wrap up the legislation in a few days, avoiding a vote on a possible measure to impose new penalties on Iran and another on health care.
President Obama has pressed Congress to pause on sanctions while the U.S. and other world powers negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran.
The Senate impasse was on full display Wednesday night.
Reid pressed for votes on just two amendments dealing with how the military handles sexual assault cases. Republicans objected, leaving the bill and the issue in limbo.
“We’re really not conducting the business of the country if we’re limiting the ability of members of the Senate to offer amendments,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said.
He challenged the notion of rushing through a bill that authorizes more than $500 billion — half the federal discretionary budget — while preventing senators from offering amendments.
A visibly dispirited Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that failure to finish the bill before senators take a two-week Thanksgiving break would leave little time to resolve differences with the House and finalize legislation.
The bill — $527 billion in a base budget, $81 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations, and $18 billion for national security programs in the Energy Department — covers pay, personnel, ships, aircraft and other war-fighting programs.
Levin said without quick action, “then for the first time in 52 years, there will not be a defense authorization bill, in the absence of some miracle.”
The Senate spent more than five hours Wednesday debating two amendments that would change the decades-old military justice system.
The female members of the Senate took the lead in an impassioned debate over the issue, agreeing that the epidemic of sexual assaults in the armed services was unacceptable, praising the 26 changes to the military justice system already in the defense bill but strongly disagreeing about how to prosecute the crimes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s solution is to give victims of serious crimes such as rape and sexual assault an independent route outside the military chain of command for the prosecution of their alleged attackers. Commanders would be stripped of their authority to decide on whether to prosecute, with the responsibility handed to seasoned military lawyers who hold the rank of colonel or higher.
The New York Democrat has the public backing of 53 senators, including Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and conservative Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. However, she faces a 60-vote threshold for her measure to pass.
Gillibrand described in explicit terms several horrific assaults only made worse by the military’s handling of the cases. The senator said Congress should not do what the generals want, but rather establish impartial, objective consideration of the evidence by trained military prosecutors.
“Victims feel they will not get justice,” she said.
The Pentagon estimates 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on an anonymous survey. Thousands of victims were unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the Pentagon said.
Displaying a chart in the Senate chamber, Gillibrand said only 302 of the 3,374 reported cases last year have gone to trial.
“The current system oriented around the chain of command has been producing horrible results,” she said.
The Pentagon disputed Gillibrand’s claim. Of the 3,374 reported cases of sexual assault, the Pentagon said it brought charges in 880 cases, with 594 resulting in court-martial, 158 non-judicial punishment, and 128 settled by administrative action and discharges.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a former prosecutor, countered that the Gillibrand proposal would create too many problems, undercutting the ability of commanders to threaten courts-martial and carry out non-judicial punishments.
The Pentagon’s top echelon opposes the Gillibrand proposal, as does Levin and three of the seven women on the Armed Services Committee.
Opponents said commanders should be held responsible for meting out justice. They said the unintended consequences of Gillibrand’s plan would be creating a system that could be worse for victims, undermining the ability of prosecutors to work out plea bargains that could spare victims a difficult trial.
Foes also said the plan would make it nearly impossible for commanders to threaten courts-martial and carry out non-judicial punishments.
“Commanders must be involved. They must be responsible,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate who served in the Army.
Among the changes already in the bill are provisions that would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require dishonorable discharge or dismissal for any individual convicted of sexual assault and establish a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case.
The bill also would provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial on serious crimes such as rape and sexual assault.
McCaskill, and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fisher, R-Neb., have offered an amendment that would bar defendants from using the good military character defense, allow sexual assault victims to challenge a discharge or separation from the service, and extend the new protections to the military service academies.