Lawmakers’ last-ditch effort to save the annual defense authorization measure includes more modest reforms to the military’s criminal justice system and drops plans to add women to future military drafts, two controversial provisions seen as major stumbling blocks to finishing the legislation.
But whether those changes will be enough to advance the bill for the 61st consecutive year remains unclear.
House lawmakers were expected to begin debate on the new compromise measure as early as Tuesday afternoon. The House passed its first draft of the bill in September, and is expected to advance the new compromise sometime this week.
However, Senate lawmakers have had their own draft stalled on the chamber floor since before Thanksgiving. Republican lawmakers who have been blocking that work over amendment disputes have not yet said whether they will support the new bill, and the changes could also upset Democrats whose priorities aren’t included in the latest draft.
Typically, both the House and Senate pass their respective versions of the authorization bill — a massive budget policy measure that include the annual pay raise, renewals for specialty pays and bonuses, and spending priorities for a host of equipment — and then conduct a lengthy, weeks-long conference process to negotiate the differences.
Because of the lack of progress on the measure in the Senate, however, Democratic and Republican leaders from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees crafted the compromise plan on their own in recent days.
The result is a trimmed down bill (which still runs more than 2,100 pages) that dumps some of the more controversial proposals adopted by the House and Senate armed services Committee. Leaders will use procedural moves in both chambers to try and speed through a final draft this week.
The two most prominent changes regard the military justice reforms and the issue of women being required to register with the Selective Service System.
In the compromise plan, Defense Department would create an independent prosecutorial office within each service to handle some serious crimes, including rape, sexual assault, murder, manslaughter and kidnapping. The move is designed to ensure those crimes are handled by specially trained officials, rather than military commanders unfamiliar with the legal specifics.
But dozens of lawmakers — led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. — have pushed for even broader reforms, saying that all serious crimes should be taken away from the traditional military chain of command.
In a statement, Gillibrand on Tuesday called the compromise language “a major setback on behalf of service members, women and survivors in particular” because it did not go far enough to take authority for the prosecution of serious crimes away from military commanders. However, she did not say if she would work to block passage of the measure,
House and Senate lawmakers have also backed plans to add women to potential future military drafts, saying that the current male-only system is antiquated given that women now can serve in all military jobs.
But a small number of conservative lawmakers had promised to block the legislation if that provision was included in the final draft. By dropping it, lawmakers hope to sidestep those concerns.
The new bill also drops plans to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s definition of stalking to include offenses against unmarried partners, another provision that was backed by both chambers but deemed problematic by the compromise authors.
The measure still outlines priorities for roughly $740 billion in spending — about 3 percent more than what the White House requested in its budget plan for fiscal 2022 — and includes a 2.7 percent pay raise for troops starting in January.
Biden’s budget request faced tough scrutiny over plans to forgo a Navy destroyer and retire 42 A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, among other cost-saving moves. The compromise included Senate language to bar any A-10 retirements, and it authorizes buying three Navy destroyers (two more than requested). It also allows the Navy to retire up to five cruisers (two less than requested).
The compromise authors dropped a number of plans for equipment purchases and force changes. House lawmakers had proposed creating a Space National Guard for the new Space Force, but those plans have been abandoned for now.
And lawmakers dumped plans to repeal the still-lingering war authorization for the invasion of Iraq, an idea pushed by numerous members of Congress but deemed too complicated to include in the final authorization bill draft.
The compromise bill does add money to security cooperation programs above the White House’s request, by $60 million for Africa and $45 million for Europe.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said on Tuesday he is optimistic the changes will allow the measure to get through both chambers in coming days.
“We have a good bill, and it should pass,” he said.
The annual authorization measure is seen as one of the few remaining areas of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill in an increasingly fractured Congress. Failure to pass it again this year would not only be a political blow to both parties, but also delay a host of needed policy renewals that could cause significant operations issues for the Defense Department.
Reporter Megan Eckstein contributed to this report.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.