Besides 'don't ask, don't tell,' what else is in the defense bill?
Updated 10:59 a.m. ET
The Senate is poised later today to take another procedural vote to move forward on a bill that would end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But remember that the measure, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, includes much, much more than just an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday morning that the Senate must vote to move ahead with the bill this week, in order to get any changes passed by the House before Congress leaves town.
"We should not deny the Senate the opportunity to take up this bill, which is so essential for the men and women in the military, because we disagree with some provisions of the bill," Levin said. "These are legitimate issues for debate. And I believe the Senate should debate them. But the only way we can debate and vote on these issues is if the Senate proceeds to the bill."
At the height of negotiations last month regarding the future of "don't ask, don't tell," Levin complained to reporters, "The bill has 849 pages and only two of them are 'don' t ask, don't tell.' The rest have to do with our troops, they have to do with a whole lot of critically important things."
The bill accounts for billions of dollars in government spending, including controversial provisions to fund a secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and other weapons systems. Much of the Washington area's contractor community relies on the funds authorized in the bill.
Provisions would also allot $11.6 billion to train the Afghan army and police as the U.S. prepares to draw down starting next year and pay for the transfer of military equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted Wednesday that the bill includes several smaller items critically important to troops.
"If the defense bill doesn't pass, it will be the first time in 48 years - not a precedent this administration or this Congress wants to set while fighting two wars," Rieckhoff said in an e-mail. His group last week announced its support for ending "don't ask, don't tell."
The bill would provide more funding for the Defense Department to hire mental health providers and to provide enough money to screen every service member for the effects of traumatic brain injury.
In an attempt to make the transition from active duty to veteran life easier, the bill also would provide more funding and guidance for the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to work on a seamless transfer of service member's medical records, allowing for a faster health assessment once troops leave the service. Improving health records sharing is a big goal of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who have been working together on the issue since the start of the Obama administration.
In an attempt to update the military's sexual harassment policy, the bill would change the penal code to reflect current sexual assault and harassment laws. It would make it easier to repay the student loans of a service member killed in action. Finally, it would establish a panel to investigate potential exposure to hazardous materials from the open air burn pits used at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The campaign to end "don't ask, don't tell" through legislation likely ends today for the foreseeable future if the Senate procedural vote fails, but the overall defense bill may live on. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said he would try to get the 2011 defense bill completed early next year, while preparing to consider the 2012 measure.
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