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Defense bill delayed as controversial provisions jettisoned

Provision requiring women to register for the draft may be out

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said he opposed tying a debt limit increase to the defense bill.
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said he opposed tying a debt limit increase to the defense bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers delayed the release of compromise defense policy legislation Monday amid ongoing negotiations over whether to attach language that would raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act stalled in the Senate last week amid a dispute over the handling of amendments. Unable to move the bill, Senate leaders opted to scrap votes on it and instead write a compromise version of the measure with House lawmakers. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have discussed looping into the NDAA language that would raise the U.S. borrowing limit — which Congress must raise by Dec. 15 to avoid a default on U.S. debt. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and leading Senate Republicans, including Texas Republican John Cornyn, opposed the move, threatening its passage.

“Funding our troops through the NDAA should in no way, shape, or form be tied to the debt limit in process or substance,” McCarthy tweeted. 

Schumer said in a letter to senators on Monday that he expected a vote on the new version of the NDAA this week, and Armed Services ranking Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma told reporters that senators would not have a chance to amend it further.

Controversial provisions jettisoned

Despite the Pentagon bill’s delay, a picture of the compromise measure began to emerge Monday that looked different from the legislation under consideration just one week prior. 

Senate legislation from New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand that would overhaul the military justice system in altering the way major crimes are handled, and was backed by majorities in both chambers, may not make the final version, even though the Armed Services Committee added it to the NDAA in July. 

Instead, the compromise defense authorization may limit the change only to crimes of a sexual nature, as laid out in the version of the NDAA the House passed in September.

Gillibrand wants to empower military lawyers known as judge advocates to decide whether, in considering allegations of major crimes, to press charges and go to a court martial. Such decisions are now in the hands of officers up the chain of command of the accused. 

The House-passed NDAA would give special victims prosecutors outside the chain of command certain authorities currently held by commanders. However, the House bill only covers sexual and related crimes. And the House bill would fall short of making the process fully professional, experts say. 

“It is outrageous that a handful of men are attempting to gut reforms to the military justice system that are supported by survivors, veterans, two-thirds of the Senate, the majority of the House and President Biden,” Gillibrand told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “I am continuing to fight to take prosecution of serious crimes out of the chain of command and put them where they belong — in the hands of professional and independent military prosecutors.”

Lawmakers also took aim at another controversial provision that had won bipartisan support in both the version of the bill the House passed and the one the Senate Armed Services Committee approved requiring women to register with the Selective Service. 

The new legislation will not require women to register for a military draft, according to reporting from Politico, despite both chambers including the language in their underlying bills. 

The reversal is a victory for a small contingent of conservative lawmakers who opposed the provision, including both Republican leaders of the Armed Services committees, Inhofe and Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama.

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