WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly passed a sweeping, $638 billion defense bill Friday that imposes new punishments on members of the armed services found guilty of rape or sexual assault, as outrage over the crisis in the military has galvanized Congress.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House voted 315-108 for the legislation, which would also block President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and limit his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons.
The House bill containing the provisions on sex-related crimes, which the Obama administration supports, as well as the detention policies, which it vigorously opposes, must be reconciled with a Senate version before heading to the president's desk. The Senate measure, expected to be considered this fall, costs $13 billion less than the House bill, a budgetary difference that also will have to be resolved.
The defense policy bill authorizes money for aircraft, weapons, ships, personnel and the Afghanistan war in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, while blocking the Pentagon from closing domestic bases.
Shocking statistics that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and high-profile incidences at service academies and in the ranks pushed lawmakers to tackle the growing sexual assault problem. A single case of a commander overturning a conviction -- a decision that even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel couldn't change -- drove Congress to act swiftly.
Both the House and Senate were determined to shake up the military's culture to assure victims that, if they reported crimes, their allegations wouldn't be discounted or careers jeopardized.
"This is a self-inflicted wound that has no place in the military," Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs and partial use of an arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq, told colleagues in the final moments of Friday's debate.
The House bill would require a mandatory minimum prison sentence of two years for an armed services member convicted of rape or sexual assault in a military court. Officers, commissioned warrant officers, cadets and midshipmen convicted of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or attempts to commit those offenses also would be dismissed. Enlisted personnel and noncommissioned warrant officers convicted of similar crimes would be dishonorably discharged.
The bill also would strip military commanders of the power to overturn rape and sexual assault convictions.
Ms. Duckworth and several other Democratic women made a last-ditch effort to change the bill to let a victim choose whether the Office of Chief Prosecutor or the commander in the victim's chain of command decides whether the case would go to trial. They argued that the bill did not go far enough. Their bid failed, 225-194, but in an emotional moment on the House floor, a wheelchair-bound Ms. Duckworth won kisses, hugs and handshakes after her plea.
Despite last-minute lobbying by Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, the House soundly rejected Mr. Obama's repeated pleas to shutter Guantanamo. In recent weeks, the president implored Congress to close the facility, citing its prohibitive costs and its role as a recruiting tool for extremists.
A new hunger strike by more than 100 of the 166 prisoners protesting their conditions and indefinite confinement have prompted fresh calls for closure. Mr. Obama is pushing to transfer approved detainees -- there are 86 -- to their home nations and lift a ban on transfers to Yemen. Fifty-six of the 86 are from Yemen.
"They represent some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world," said Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., who argued that Yemen as a destination made no sense, since it is home to an active al-Qaida affiliate.
Countering her argument, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the nation's intelligence experts have determined that the detainees are an acceptable risk for release and hardly a grave threat to the country. "Holding them forever is un-American," he said.
Mr. Smith, the Armed Services Committee's senior Democrat, said U.S. maximum-security prisons -- now holding some 300 terrorists, including some of the most notorious -- are perfectly capable of incarcerating them.
By a 249-174, vote, the House rejected Mr. Smith's amendment to close Guantanamo by Dec. 31, 2014. It also backed Ms. Walorski's amendment to stop the president from transferring any detainees to Yemen. That vote was 236-188.
The House bill's restrictions put it at odds with the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee's bill gives the Defense Department additional flexibility to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the United States and other nations, with the objective of closing the detention facility there.
During two-plus days of debate, House defense hawks prevailed over fiscal hawks, as two bids to cut the bill's overall authorized spending were rejected.