Republicans and Democrats working out the Pentagon's annual policy bill said Monday that they had reached an agreement on a stripped-down version of the bill over the Thanksgiving recess and presented it to their colleagues with one message: Take it or leave it.
Leaders on the House and Senate Armed Services committees said they had reached a compromise that they would hope to pass the House this week and the Senate next week, before both chambers adjourn for the year.
The bill is not what lawmakers hoped it would be, but trimming controversial provisions was the only way to pass critical policy legislation before the House leaves town on Friday, lawmakers said. Among the casualties of the deal is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's proposal to revamp the way the Pentagon handles sexual assault cases.
The compromise bill does include about 20 provisions dealing with military sexual assault, including making it a crime to retaliate against assault victims. But a more contentious proposal offered by Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to strip military commanders of the power to decide who is prosecuted for sexual assault cases was stripped out.
“Do you want the bill or not?” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said. "We are where we are. We ran out of time.”
As they announced their deal, McKeon and Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., all stressed the importance of passing the National Defense Authorization Act. Without it, troops will lose combat and hardship pay, they said.
McKeon said leaders from the House and Senate armed services committees met last week, and "were able to go through about 87 amendments, 79 of which have been debated and included in the bill as if they had been voted on, on the Senate floor.”
The Senate deadlocked and failed to pass a defense bill after Republicans and Democrats failed in November to agree on the number of amendments to allow.
"This is the only way we can pass a bill this year," Levin said, adding that the Senate is likely to be consumed with budget issues when it returns in January.
The compromise defense bill provides combat and hardship pay for troops as well as re-enlistment bonuses. It gives President Obama the flexibility to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to third-party countries and provides the Pentagon with the authority to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.
If all goes well, according to the lawmakers, the House would vote on the compromise this week and the Senate would take it up next week, right before it adjourns for the holidays.
Lawmakers who have worked on the defense policy bill over the years pride themselves on passing one every year for 51 years, including years in which Congress couldn't even agree on a federal budget. But it's not clear whether House and Senate leaders will accept the latest proposed deadline.
“This isn't the way we'd like to do it,” Inhofe said. “This is the only way we could do it."