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U.S. House passes bill authorizing $633 billion in defense spending

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the annual defense policy bill on Thursday, authorizing $633 billion in spending for 2014, strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault in the military and easing some transfers from the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The House voted 350-69 to pass a slimmed-down version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was introduced as a compromise early this week. Its passage clears the way for final consideration by the U.S. Senate, likely next week.

The compromise bill authorizes $552.1 billion in spending for national defense and an additional $80.7 billion for foreign military operations, including in Afghanistan.

Congress has managed to pass the bill authorizing spending for the military every year for 52 years, in a rare exception to the partisan gridlock that has stalled most other legislation.

This year's defense authorization act was passed by the House months ago, but was stalled in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans argued over amendments. Some Senate Republicans have said they were angry that the measure had come to the floor only last month, allowing too little time for debate.

It includes several measures to address the problem of sexual assault in the military.

But it does not include an amendment seeking to overhaul the way the Pentagon handles sexual assault complaints that was proposed by New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to place decisions about whether to prosecute sex crimes in the hands of professional military prosecutors and remove it from victims' commanders.

It leaves open the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where 164 terrorism suspects have been held for as long as 12 years without charge. But it would loosen restrictions on President Barack Obama's ability to send prisoners from Guantanamo to third countries, while continuing to forbid their transfer to the United States.

Obama has pledged to close the prison at the Navy base.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Armed Services Committees in the Senate and House came up with the slimmed-down compromise bill - without most of the hundreds of amendments proposed by lawmakers - on Monday.

The bill requires additional oversight of two of the Pentagon's biggest acquisition programs - the $392 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being built by Lockheed Martin Corp and the 52-ship Littoral Combat Ship program, which includes ships built by Lockheed and Australia's Austal Ltd.

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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