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Facing a long list of deadlines and obligations, the US Senate is scrambling to finish the bill that sets funding and policy for the military before the end of the year. This week, lawmakers are debating controversial amendments on military sexual assault, economic sanctions on Iran and the Guantanamo Bay prison. But some lawmakers and independent watchdogs are urging a closer look at the underlying bill, in which the Senators ignore the budget caps they themselves set two years ago. On Capitol Hill, Alice Ollstein reports.
In an environment of fiscal austerity, in which social safety net programs like food stamps and Head Start preschool face deep cuts, the Senate continues debating a bill this week that would authorize more than $600 billion dollars for the military to use in 2014. Policy watchdogs, including Ethan Rosenkranz with the Project on Government Oversight, have pointed to many areas where lawmakers are set to spend more than military leaders say they need.
ROSENKRANZ: The Pentagon has put forth a number of modest proposals for ways to save money, and Congress has by and large rejected those proposals.
The Senate Defense bill would give the military about 1.3 billion dollars that the Pentagon has not requested, for everything from weapons and aircraft to discredited and canceled programs like the “Human Terrain System,” which has sent anthropologists into combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2007. The massive funding bill also does little to combat the pervasive problem of private military contractors overcharging the government for their services or committing outright fraud, which has been documented by government investigations and outside groups. Rosenkranz says the powerful military industrial complex deserves the credit for this lack of cuts and reforms.
ROSENKRANZ: There’s intense lobbying, there’s intense campaign contributions. These contractors routinely brag about spreading their projects over as many districts and states as possible.
But you won’t hear much discussion of these spending decisions in this week’s debate on the Defense bill. The Senate has mostly focused on a handful of controversial amendments. On Tuesday night, the Senate voted down one measure that would have blocked President Obama from transferring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the United States prisons for detention, trial or medical treatment, which many see as a crucial step towards closing the facility.
On Wednesday, lawmakers took up the Military Justice Improvement Act, an amendment to the Defense Bill that would change the way the Armed Forces handle rape and sexual assault. Currently, a survivor of rape or assault has to report the crime to his or her commander, who holds the power to decide whether to investigate it or ignore it. The amendment’s author is New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.
GILLIBRAND: We believe that the decision to prosecute serious crimes including sexual assault, should be made by trained legal professionals outside the chain of command, but still within the military. This change will allow prosecutorial decisions to be made based on facts and evidence, and not derailed by preexisting relationships, biases and perceptions.
All this week, veteran survivors of sexual assault have been lobbying undecided Senators, sharing their stories and urging them to support the Gillibrand amendment. One of them is Kate Weber, who was raped by a high ranking officer when she was 18 years old and stationed in Nuremberg, Germany. In a press conference on Capitol Hill this week, she said the military failed to provide adequate care or accountability.
WEBER: When I told my superiors, they simply suggested I get a “check up.” I went to the hospital, where I was examined by an O-6 Lt. Col. He noted that there was bruising on my cervix but did not conduct a rape kit examination. On my file he wrote, “alleges she was sexually assaulted.” When I got back to my barracks that night, I found my rapist there waiting for me. He grabbed me by my neck and threatened me, saying he had a “pregnant wife.” Although I reported my rape to multiple superiors in my chain of command, they each chose to help cover up the crime instead of initiating an investigation.
More than 50 Senators, Republicans and Democrats, have voiced support for the Military Justice Improvement Act, but it may not have the votes to overcome a potential filibuster.
Meanwhile, a group of Senators continues to push party leaders to allow a vote on an amendment to increase economic sanctions on Iran. The White House has been asking Congress to hold off on such votes, as US and Iranian negotiators are in Geneva right now on the brink of a major agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The Administration worries such a vote could derail the sensitive talks. But some lawmakers, including Alabama Republican Richard Shelby disagree.
SHELBY: I think they’re wrong because if something’s working you keep it up! This is short of war. This is short of the threat of war. The bottom line is, economics works. That’s what it’s all about.
With more than 50 amendments filed to the massive bill, it’s unlikely the Senate will finish its work before it leaves for a Thanksgiving break, leaving very little time to negotiate with the House on a final version before current funding expires.