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Defense authorization bill clears Congress again

The 2016 defense authorization bill is headed to the White House — again.

By Leo Shane III, Staff writer – Defense News

Senators gave final congressional approval to the military policy measure on Tuesday by a 91-3 vote, advancing a host of military pay renewals, an overhaul of the military retirement system, and a series of planned reforms to the defense acquisition process.

The question now is whether this measure, the second defense authorization bill passed by Congress this fall, will be sent back with the same presidential veto stamp as the last one.

Last month, President Obama vetoed the then-$612 billion defense bill over concerns that congressional Republicans were using temporary war funds to get around caps on fiscal 2016 military spending, while leaving caps on other government agencies intact.

That was enough to calm most congressional opposition to the measure, which has been signed into law for 53 consecutive years. In the House last week, 100 lawmakers, mostly Democrats, switched their earlier “no” votes to “yes,” with lawmakers praising the bill’s critical pay and benefit renewals for service members and their families.

Before Tuesday’s Senate vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was optimistic that the overwhelming support from Capitol Hill would carry over into a presidential signature.

“We expect the president to finally sign it this time,” McConnell said. “This should have been allowed to happen a whole lot sooner.”

The White House has complained about provisions restricting the closing of detention facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that are still contained in the measure, but has not issued another formal veto threat.

Like the first version of the annual legislation, the bill includes retirement changes that would dump the traditional 20-year, all-or-nothing model and replace it for new enlistees with a 401(k)-style blended pension plan.

Lawmakers and administration officials have hailed the move for rewarding the vast majority of troops with some retirement payout upon leaving service, even if they serve as little as one tour. The current system, in contrast, benefits only the fewer than one in five troops who put in at least 20 years in uniform.

The bill’s procurement reforms give service chiefs and secretaries overall responsibility for acquisition programs within the services, a change from the single joint-service office that has held decision-making authority over those programs for three decades.

The authorization bill also includes new language to loosen restrictions on service members carrying personal firearms on military installations, new protections for sexual assault victims, and provisions to provide more military assistance to fighters in Ukraine and Syria.

However, it also includes trims in military housing allowances and cuts to commissary benefits, designed to save money for force modernization and training programs. Outside advocates have lamented that those changes, coupled with a lower-than-expected pay raise of 1.3 percent on Jan. 1, will increase financial strain on military families.

 

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