Defense bill backing Obama's expansion of military operations against extremists nears passage

The House is moving toward passage of a $585 billion defense policy bill that gives President Barack Obama the authority to expand U.S. military operations against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.

The sweeping legislation authorizes spending for the nation's defense, from construction of ships, planes and war-fighting equipment to a 1 percent pay raise for the troops, while maintaining the prohibition on transferring terror suspects from the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.

The House is expected to vote Thursday and send the measure to the Senate, where Republicans are divided over the inclusion of unrelated provisions expanding wilderness areas in the West. Proponents of the measure hope to finish the bill next week and send it to Obama for his signature.

In a rare instance of bipartisanship, Congress has passed the defense policy bill for 52 consecutive years. This year, work on the bill has added poignancy as the chairmen of the Armed Services committees in the Senate and House are retiring. Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin is leaving after 36 years; California Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon is stepping down after 22 years.

The overall legislation endorses Obama's latest request to Congress in the 4-month-old war against Islamic State militants who brutally rule large sections of Iraq and Syria. Obama sought billions for the stepped-up operation and the dispatch of up to 1,500 more American troops; the bill provides $5 billion.

The administration also pressed for reauthorization of its plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels battling the forces of President Bashar Assad, with that mandate expiring Dec. 11. The legislation would extend that authority for two years.

Some in Congress have pressed for a new vote for authorizing the use of military force — to no avail.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., warned that the U.S. must "not get dragged into Iraq war 2.0."

The bill would provide the core funding of $521.3 billion for the military and $63.7 billion for overseas operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where fighting has lasted more than a decade.

The bill would prohibit the retirement of the A-10 Warthog, the close-air support plane often described as ugly but invaluable.

The Pentagon sought cuts in military benefits. Lawmakers compromised by agreeing to make service members pay $3 more for co-pays on prescription drugs and trimming the growth of the off-base housing allowance by 1 percent instead of the Pentagon-preferred 5 percent.

The legislation would change the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a "good soldier defense" to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.

The bill includes a bipartisan plan crafted by three female senators — Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — that would impose a half-dozen changes to combat the pervasive problem of rape and sexual offenses that Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks.

The measure would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military system or civilian and would establish a confidential process to allow alleged victims to challenge their separation or discharge from the military. In addition, it would increase the accountability of commanders and extend all changes related to sexual assault cases to the service academies.

Officials told The Associated Press that the number of sexual assaults reported by military service members increased 8 percent in 2014, suggesting victims are far more willing to come forward and seek help or file complaints than in years past.