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Owens: Deal on defense authorizations could be ready by end of week

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WATERTOWN - As a compromise appears to be in place for a new defense authorization bill, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he thought a deal could be finalized by the end of the business week.

“I’m hopeful we’ll have this done by Friday night, wrapped up and delivered to the President,” he said.

The bill deals with things like military pay, funding for ships and aircraft and the cost of the war in Afghanistan. A version of the legislation passed by the House in June has languished in the Senate for months.

On Monday, it was announced that Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees reached agreement on a compromise measure totaling $632.8 billion, including $80.7 billion for overseas operations such as the conflict in Afghanistan.

Some 500 amendments are pending on the stalled bill, but few legislative days remain. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there isn’t enough time to go through the regular process and pleaded with colleagues to back the compromise without amendments.

Without new amendments, Mr. Owens predicted that a bill could move quickly through the two houses.

A part of the authorization bill is a $4.7 million expansion to a MQ-9 Reaper drone hanger used by the New York Air National Guard at Fort Drum’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield. Mr. Owens said he was confident that funding would remain in the bill.

The committee leaders want the House to vote before it adjourns at week’s end and are pressing for Senate action by the end of the year. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other leaders urging prompt action and detailing special pay, bonuses and other special items that would expire if the bill slips to January.

“The authorities therein are critical to the nation’s defense and urgently needed to ensure we all keep faith with the men and women, military and civilian, selflessly serving in our armed forces,” Dempsey wrote.

The bipartisan defense authorization bill typically enjoys overwhelming support, but has been caught up in the Senate fight between Reid and Republicans over procedure. Reid sought to finish the bill before the Thanksgiving break; Republicans objected that he had tried to limit their ability to offer amendments to a measure that represents more than half the nation’s discretionary budget.

Several Senate Republicans and some Democrats would like to vote on new sanctions on Iran, a prospect that unnerves the Obama administration amid fears it would undermine a new agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons. Other lawmakers want to offer amendments on Syria, Afghanistan and reining in spying by the National Security Agency.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would prefer if Boehner does not allow a vote in the House on the compromise bill as he pushes for Senate Republicans to get a vote on their amendments.

If the House votes this week on the compromise and then adjourns, the Senate would still have the opportunity to amend the measure. But that would delay the bill until next year, as the House would have no time to respond to the Senate changes.

The compromise bill seeks to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the armed services.

The bill would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions and mandate that any individual convicted of sexual assault would face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would require a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case, provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial.

The compromise bill does not include the contentious proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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