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Congressional Plan To Fund Military Comes With A Side Of 'Land Grab'


In a normal year, Congress passes a bill saying how the Pentagon should spend its money. This year's measure provides half a trillion dollars - that's 500 billion. It dictates what the military can and cannot do on many issues, from operations against ISIS to efforts against sexual assault. Some lawmakers opposed that measure over issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the military. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: The yearly Defense Authorization bill is known as a must-pass measure. The leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who are both retiring this year, call it a rare bright spot in a process that's been tarnished by partisan bickering. Michigan Senator Carl Levin chairs the Senate committee.


SENATOR CARL LEVIN: The eye of authority disappears when it comes to the Defense Authorization bill, and that's the way should be.

SUMMERS: So then with just a few days left to go before lawmakers are set to head out of Washington, why is this bill causing some heartburn? The answer has nothing to do with military readiness, threats overseas or pay raises for troops. It has to do with land, a lot of land. Tacked onto the measure is language that would designate nearly a quarter million new acres of wilderness, create or expand more than a dozen national parks and establish a commission to explore building a women's history museum. Advocates call it a victory. Opponents like Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn call it a land grab.


SENATOR TOM COBURN: Here's the worst of Congress. Not doing their job and then on a bill that's going through, adding stuff that violates individual property rights that are goodies that are connected to the supporters of many members of Congress. It stinks. Ethically, it stinks.

SUMMERS: Senate Democrats hope to pass a defense bill quickly, opening the floor so that they can take up the government spending bill from the House. But unless the bill's opponents back down, Senate leaders will be unable to do that, creating the possibility that they'll have to extend their session. The bill's supporters, including Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, say there are things not to like in the package but that it's too late to change legislation.


SENATOR JIM INHOFE: We can't make changes. We can't have another bill 'cause we're out of time. It just couldn't happen unless it happens with this bill.

SUMMERS: While the things that have held up the defense bill's passage have little to do with the military, the bill does tackle a number of high-profile issues. It gives the president authority to expand U.S. military operations against ISIS, and it reauthorizes the Pentagon's plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels for another two years. The bill also makes more changes to the way the military handles sexual assault. Juana Summers, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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