By DONNA CASSATA AND RICHARD LARDNER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — The House is heading toward passage of a sweeping defense bill that reflects the outrage among lawmakers over the growing number of sexual assaults in the military.
The legislation is expected to be completed Friday and includes a measure requiring a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for a member of the armed services convicted of rape or sexual assault in a military court.
"Being in a military uniform should not be a get-out-of-jail card," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who proposed the measure that House lawmakers included in the bill authorizing spending for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The additional punishment is part of a series of steps lawmakers have taken to tackle the growing problem of sexual assault. Both the House and Senate appear determined to shake up the military's culture in ways that would ensure victims that if they report a crime, their allegations won't be discounted and their careers won't be jeopardized.
Once completed, the House bill must be reconciled with the Senate's version.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Thursday the panel's 2014 defense policy bill included a provision requiring an automatic review by an individual higher in the chain of command should a commander decide not to prosecute an allegation of sexual assault. The committee's bill also would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and would strip commanders of the authority to dismiss court-martial convictions.
Levin called the automatic review provision "a very significant protection and assurance of the seriousness with which allegations are going to be taken and not simply swept under the rug by a lawyer or by anybody."
The full Senate will take up the committee's bill in the coming weeks.
The House Armed Services Committee last week approved provisions in the defense bill that included stripping military commanders of the power to overturn convictions in rape and sexual assault cases. The panel also voted to require that anyone found guilty of a sex-related crime receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
Officers, commissioned warrant officers, cadets and midshipmen convicted of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or attempts to commit those offenses would be dismissed under a mandatory minimum sentence. Enlisted personnel and noncommissioned warrant officers convicted of similar crimes would be dishonorably discharged.
Turner and other lawmakers argued on Thursday that they needed to add a minimum sentence to that punishment. Yet several Democratic women opposed the step, arguing that while confinement was appropriate, Congress should wait for a Defense Department report on sentencing guidelines.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who worked with Turner in crafting several of the provisions, broke with her colleague on the amendment, saying it was premature until the Pentagon report.
The Pentagon estimated recently that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
The House defense bill would provide the military with $638 billion for 2014, including $86 billion for the war in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the legislation, objecting to provisions that would limit the president's authority in handling terror suspects at the military-run detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and implementing a nuclear reduction treaty.
Despite the congressional clamor to cut the budget deficit, the bill rejects several Pentagon attempts to save money. It spares a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, rebuffs attempts to increase health care fees for retirees and their dependents and opposes another round of domestic base closures.
Overall, the bill fails to acknowledge the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that Washington has grudgingly accepted. The cuts of $41 billion hit the Pentagon on March 1 and forced the military to furlough workers and scale back training.
The Pentagon faces deeper reductions in projected spending of close to $1 trillion over a decade, but the bill did not reflect that reality for next fiscal year. The Pentagon likely will have to cut $54 billion to meet the numbers dictated by the so-called sequester.
Levin said the defense policy bill approved by the panel Thursday authorizes $625 billion in spending for 2014. The legislation approves a 1 percent pay raise for the troops, as the Defense Department requested.
To help offset the negative impact of the automatic spending cuts on the military readiness, Levin said, the committee found $1.8 billion in budget savings and efficiencies. That money was shifted into other accounts for all the services in an attempt to restore flying hours, steaming days for Navy vessels, unit training and essential depot maintenance.