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U.S. lawmakers hope for vote on compromise defense bill this year

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Armed Services committees agreed on a slimmed-down defense authorization bill and want a final vote on the measure before Congress leaves for the year, committee leaders said on Monday.

The full Senate was unable to consider some 500 proposed amendments in time to pass the bill this month, so the committees' Democratic and Republican leaders hammered out a compromise on pressing issues such as strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault in the military and keeping open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"This is not the best way to proceed, but our troops and their families and our nation's security deserve a defense bill, and this is the only practical way to get a defense bill done," said Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, said on the Senate floor.

The defense panel leaders want the House to vote on the measure before it leaves for its year-end holiday recess on Friday and a final vote in the Senate next week.

The compromise bill authorizes $552.1 billion in spending for national defense and an additional $80.7 billion for foreign military operations, including in Afghanistan. The base budget is unchanged from the 2013 bill, but war spending is $7.8 billion lower.

It would be the third time in five years that Congress has resorted to passing a slimmed-down defense policy bill, after similar compromises in 2008 and 2010.

The bill does not include an amendment seeking to overhaul the way the Pentagon handles sexual assault complaints that was proposed by New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Gillibrand measure would place decisions about whether to prosecute sex crimes in the hands of professional military prosecutors and remove it from victims' commanders. It is opposed by most Pentagon leaders, but has attracted fairly wide support among lawmakers.

The New York Democrat has pledged to bring her legislation up as a standalone bill.

The measure also would leave open the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where 164 terrorism suspects have been held for as long as 12 years without charge.

However, it would loosen restrictions on President Barack Obama's ability to send prisoners from Guantanamo to other countries, while continuing to forbid their transfer to the United States, something adamantly opposed by Republican lawmakers in particular.

Obama has pledged to close the prison at the Navy base.

OVERCOMING GRIDLOCK?

Congress has managed to pass a National Defense Authorization Act authorizing spending for the military every year for 52 years, in a rare exception to the partisan gridlock that has stalled most other legislation.

This year's bill was passed by the House months ago, but was stalled in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans argued over amendments. Some Senate Republicans said on Monday they were angry that the measure had come to the floor only last month, allowing too little time to debate amendments.

Levin and James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate committee, both said a version of the bill must pass Congress this month rather than when the House and Senate return from their holiday breaks in January.

They distributed a letter from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which the top U.S. military commander listed nearly two dozen expiring spending authorities and said allowing the bill to be delayed until January would affect the Pentagon's global influence.

Among other things, failure to pass the measure could interrupt the pay of troops who are now in combat and disrupt some expensive projects, at a huge cost to taxpayers.

"We'd be wasting not millions but billions of dollars if we don't do this," Inhofe told a news conference after he and Levin presented the compromise bill in the Senate.

The bill requires additional oversight of two of the Pentagon's biggest acquisition programs - the $392 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being built by Lockheed Martin Corp and the 52-ship Littoral Combat Ship program, which includes ships built by Lockheed and Australia' Austal.

It called for an independent assessment of software being developed for the F-35 fighter jet, and its complex computer-based logistic system, as well as development of a plan for operations and maintenance of the new coastal warships.

It was not immediately clear whether the bill would hit the House and Senate floors in time to pass this year, but its bipartisan support increased the chances it would be approved.

Representative Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, said he had spoken to House leaders about the measure but had not received an answer by Monday evening on whether they would allow a vote.

Levin said he was meeting with Senate Democrats, and Inhofe said he could not yet say how Senate Republicans would choose to proceed.

"We're going to try to do our best to get it passed," Inhofe said.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shala-Esa; Editing by Christopher Wilson, Jackie Frank and Lisa Shumaker)

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