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Defense Bill Deserves Priority, Support in Senate

It is past time for the Senate to take up and pass the National Defense Authorization Act. More than 70,000 active duty and National Guard troops have been sent to the Gulf Coast to assist in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. These troops are playing a critical role in conducting search and rescue missions, evacuating displaced persons, providing security in impacted areas, delivering essential food, water and medicine and rebuilding damaged infrastructure throughout the region.

At the same time, roughly 138,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are engaged in taking on an aggressive insurgency and winning the peace in Iraq, another 17,000 remain in harm’s way in Afghanistan and tens of thousands more are supporting the war effort through deployments thousands of miles from home. Our armed forces also continue to bear the brunt of the continuing effort to keep the peace in Kosovo and the Sinai, and contain the threat of North Korea — while remaining prepared to execute other missions in support of the national military strategy.

Some of these troops deployed overseas are from the Gulf Coast area. Some will soon return home to find that Katrina has damaged or destroyed their homes. Some will have nothing left. Passage of the national defense bill will improve their quality of life while they remain on active duty and when serving on hurricane recovery duty. It will send an important message to them and to their families that we, as a nation, understand their loss and appreciate their service. Failure to pass the defense bill would send the opposite message.

At a time when members of our armed forces are performing heroically, both at home and overseas, to make our country safer and stronger, it would be unconscionable to give the defense authorization bill anything less than top legislative priority. Our military both needs and deserves all of the support that this Congress can provide.

First and foremost, the defense authorization bill would support our troops by improving compensation and quality of life for our service men and women and their families as they face the hardships imposed by continuing military operations within the United States and around the world. For instance, the bill would provide funding for a 3.1 percent across-the-board pay raise for military personnel; a $70 million increase in child care and family assistance services for military families; and $50 million in supplemental educational aid to local school districts affected by the assignment or location of military families.

The bill would also provide needed funding for the continuation of our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the bill would authorize a $50 billion supplemental for continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, add hundreds of millions of dollars to the President’s budget needed for force protection gear, up-armored vehicles, and a Joint Improvised Explosive Device Task Force, increase the Army’s active-duty end strength by 20,000, and authorize the continuation of the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program.

If we fail to enact this bill in a timely manner, we will hurt our men and women in uniform. If this bill is not enacted, the military’s authority to pay bonuses and special pays to our men and women in uniform will expire, exacerbating an already troublesome problem we are facing with recruitment and retention. If this bill is not enacted, the enhanced death gratuity of $100,000 and the increased life insurance benefits that we enacted for servicemembers earlier this year will lapse and substantially lower benefits will be reinstated. And if this bill is not enacted, more than $6 billion in military construction and family housing projects to improve the conditions in which our servicemembers work and live will be unable to proceed.

The defense authorization bill was brought to the Senate floor at the end of July. In the last week before the August recess, we attempted to enter a unanimous consent agreement that would have concluded debate on the bill in less than two days. Unfortunately, the Senate leadership rejected this proposal and pulled the bill off the floor before action could be completed, so that the Senate could instead consider the gun manufacturers’ liability bill.

We have been told that the Senate leadership is unwilling to return to the defense authorization bill because they are reluctant to address amendments that have been offered relative to the detention and interrogation of persons in custody of the United States.

These amendments are relevant to the subject matter of the bill. I strongly believe that measures prohibiting the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees in the custody of the United States are also likely to have a favorable impact both on the protection of our men and women in uniform and on the standing of the United States as a leading advocate for human rights around the world. While some of these amendments may be controversial, their sponsors have every right, consistent with the rules and traditions of the Senate, to offer them.

I have offered an amendment of my own, which would establish an independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 commission, to investigate the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody around the world. The DOD-led reviews to date have left significant gaps and omissions, demonstrating that the department is not able to fully investigate itself. Establishing an independent commission to address these gaps and omissions would reaffirm the values we cherish as Americans and help protect our own troops from abuse, should they be captured by opposing forces in future armed conflicts.

The Senate leadership obviously has a lengthy agenda that they want to pursue over the next month. Some of the items on this agenda are undoubtedly important, but we should not pursue them at the expense of our men and women in uniform. If we truly value the contribution that our armed forces have made and continue to make every day at home and abroad, we should take up and pass a defense authorization bill before the end of the month.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.