Jun 10 2020

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES

WASHINGTON — A subcommittee of senators voiced support Tuesday for a 3% raise next year for U.S. military troops as the lawmakers began drafting the 2021 bill that sets Pentagon policy and spending.

The Senate’s early version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act includes the boost in pay for all service members, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subpanel on personnel. It was the only subpanel hearing of the Senate committee to consider the 2021 NDAA that was open to the public.

Senate Armed Services Committee staffers said the other six subcommittees met Monday and Tuesday in classified sessions. The full committee is set to consider the bill on Wednesday and Thursday in sessions that will also be closed to the public.

Senators said specific details about what is included in early drafts of the bill could not be made public Tuesday. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to consider its version of the bill July 1, the committee announced last week. That hearing will be open to the public.

The final version of the NDAA is not expected to be passed until the fall. Lawmakers have until Sept. 30 to approve it on time for the new fiscal year. The bill was not passed last year until December as lawmakers wrangled over the inclusion of funding for wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The 3% pay raise, which if approved would go into effect in January, matches what the White House proposed in its budget recommendation submitted in February. Troops received a 3.1% boost in pay last year.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., the subcommittee’s chairman, said the current version of the NDAA supports similar end-strength numbers to the White House proposed budget. That $705.4 billion budget request for the Pentagon proposed adding about 5,600 new troops, bringing the total force to 2,153,500 troops, including active duty, reservists and National Guard members.

Members of the subpanel unanimously voted to forward their version of the bill to the full Senate Armed Services Committee, however several Democratic senators said they opposed leaving out measures meant to address sexual harassment in the ranks.

Gillibrand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., questioned why the subcommittee did not include a measure known as the Safe to Report policy, which would strip military leaders of the power to punish sexual assault victims for infractions such as underage drinking or breaking curfews.

Gillibrand said victims often feel unsafe in reporting attacks for fear of punishment. The Air Force Academy implemented a Safe to Report policy in 2018, which the senator said has been successful.

A version of Safe to Report was included in versions of the 2020 NDAA passed last year by the House and Senate, but it was ultimately stripped from the final bill.

“That provision would’ve removed factors that have been found to chill survivors’ willingness to make unrestricted reports – factors that contribute to three in four sexual assaults in the ranks going unreported,” Gillibrand said. “We must ensure survivors can come forward without fear of collateral misconduct charges for minor offenses.”

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