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Politics

House, Senate negotiators reach accord on defense bill

The deal was a loss for champions of a more sweeping response to sexual assault in the military, a group led by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand.

AP/File

The deal was a loss for champions of a more sweeping response to sexual assault in the military, a group led by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand.

WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators reached a final agreement Monday on a Pentagon policy bill that would strengthen protections for military victims of sexual assault and keep the prison facility at Guantánamo Bay open over President Obama’s strenuous objections, as Congress rushed to wrap up work in its last full week of the year.

The way the Pentagon deal was struck reflected the dysfunction that has been characteristic of the current Congress.

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Negotiators from the House and Senate armed services committees found common ground on the sprawling measure even though a Senate version has yet to pass, and some Senate Republicans were furious that they had been bypassed once again.

But in the unusual first session of the 113th Congress, precedent has rarely held, and in a legislative year likely to go down in history as the least productive ever, Monday’s accord on defense policy was something of a victory for Congress.

The compromise measure totals $632.8 billion, including funds for military pay, ships and planes, and $80.7 billion for overseas operations such as the war in Afghanistan.

The deal was a loss for champions of a more sweeping response to sexual assault in the military, a group led by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. Her effort to take sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command was rebuffed and she intends to try to advance her bill again next year.

The House passed its annual defense policy bill in the summer, but the Senate’s version has been pending for weeks, bogged down in a dispute over the number of Republican amendments that would be allowed to come to a vote.

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As Republican and Democratic leaders battled over procedure, the House and Senate armed services committees negotiated behind the scenes on a compromise bill that is likely to pass the House this week and then be taken up by the Senate next week.

The measure is the first change to laws governing sexual assault in the military in years and stems from the furor that has erupted in recent years over the rising number of sexual assaults in the military. There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints reported in the first three quarters of this fiscal year, a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.

The problem has drawn particular scrutiny in this Congress by the seven women on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

While the compromise measure offers modest reforms, the more contentious changes championed by Gillibrand were rejected by the Senate committee, seriously reducing the chances of her proposals being included in the final measure.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the bill would provide a special counsel for victims of sexual assault and makes retaliation for reporting assault a crime. Service members court-martialed for sexual assault would no longer be able to stay in the military if found guilty and those accused would be moved from units that they share with their accusers.

The Senate on Monday started a two-week, year-end session to deal with the defense bill, an overall deal to avert automatic spending cuts, and other measures.

Members are also expected to vote Tuesday to confirm Patricia Millett to become a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Millett is a prominent private lawyer who worked in the solicitor general’s office under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Republicans used a filibuster to prevent a vote on Millett’s nomination in October. Such repeated procedural delays of presidential nominees pushed Democrats to change the rule on filibusters, trimming the number of votes needed to halt such delays against most nominations from 60 to a simple majority.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter Monday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, and other leaders urging prompt action on the defense bill.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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