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House passes defense bill with tough sexual assault provisions

The House of Representatives on Friday passed a wide-ranging annual defense spending bill, authorizing appropriations for 2014 with an additional focus on the recent controversies surrounding sexual assault in the military.

The bill, which authorizes all manners of funds toward keeping the Defense Department functional for the 2014 fiscal year, passed in a bipartisan vote of 315-108.

It authorizes $638 billion in funding for the military, as well as for various costs associated with weapons, aircraft, ships and personnel.

In addition to those routine authorizations, however, the bill also cracks down on sexual assault in the military, an issue that has been under the microscope since a recent report revealed that there were 26,000 cases of military sexual assault in 2012.

The bill includes a mandatory two-year jail sentence for armed service members convicted in a military court of rape or sexual assault and would strip commanders of the power to overturn convictions in rape and sexual assault cases. Moreover, it calls for the dismissal or dishonorable discharge of service members convicted of attempting or committing sex-related crimes such as rape, sexual assault, or forced sodomy. It also would allow victims of sexual assault to apply for a permanent transfer out of their unit and allow commanders to temporarily transfer those who have been accused of sexual assault.

The Senate must now vote on its version of the defense authorization bill, after which point the two chambers will have to reconcile their differences. (President Obama has threatened to veto the House bill because it blocks him from closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and limits his power with regard to nuclear weapon reduction, according to the Associated Press.) Both chambers appear committed to reforming sexual assault provisions within the existing law, however, particularly in light of the recent controversies.

The Senate Armed Services Committee this week adopted "a bipartisan package which we believe is the strongest and most effective approach to sexual assaults," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, in remarks to reporters this week.

Measures in that package include an automatic review in the event that a commander or military lawyer decides not to prosecute a sexual assault complaint, and a provision that would make it illegal for people to retaliate against sexual assault victims. It would also make it illegal for commanders to dismiss court-martial convictions.

The Senate bill was amended by Levin this week to keep the decision of whether to prosecute in the chain of command is contrary to what Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., proposed, which she said would encourage more victims to speak out. She called Levin's final package "insufficient."

A bipartisan group of senators and representatives -- including Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Nikki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio - have also been worked together on legislation governing sexual assault in the military, and the product of some of their work is turning up in both the House and Senate defense authorization bills.

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