Senate Armed Services Committee leaders are under pressure to win support on a crucial vote — expected Wednesday — that would clear the way to passing the National Defense Authorization Act before year's end.
The bill — which provides for the nation's defense, including such critical components as combat pay, armed services' health care benefits, resources for troops in Afghanistan, and counterterrorism operations — is viewed as one of the few vestiges of bipartisanship in a dysfunctional Washington.
But for first-time Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., and retiring Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., the stakes are especially high. Neither wants the stain of failure on his record, as Inhofe seeks to prove himself and Levin looks to cement his career accomplishments.
"There is a lot of pressure on them politically," said Steven Bucci, a former top Pentagon official, who is the director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
"The sort of embarrassment and threat that it would be the first time in 52 years that they didn't pass a defense bill, and the fact that it does have some relevance to the ability to defend the nation, are significant."
There are also important policy ramifications of the legislation.
"For the HASC and the SASC, it's a big part of where lawmakers put their focus for the year," said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who served on the House Armed Services Committee. "It gives some overall direction to the Department of Defense. ... It gives them the North Star of what they should be working toward in the next year, and when you don't do that, you get mission drift."
For Inhofe, as a new ranking member this year, following in the footsteps of the ever-influential defense heavyweight Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., failing to win sufficient Republican votes in his first year as the senior Republican could hurt his credibility as a leader on the committee's most fundamental task.
Inhofe has made plain he believes the stakes are high.
"We have a National Defense Authorization Act," Inhofe said on the Senate floor last week. "That act is more important than anything else we do around here, in my opinion. ... For 51 consecutive years we have passed an NDAA bill prior to January, and it's always been that way."
When Inhofe announced the defense-bill compromise reached between Senate and House leaders last week, he made clear that Republicans pushing for amendments would only imperil its chances at the expense of the nation's defense.
Inhofe has reached out to members, personally urging them to support the bill, explaining what is in it and the consequences of not passing it, and building coalitions. He has enlisted the assistance of McCain, who still wields considerable sway as a leading defense hawk and has been making the case that the bill must be completed this year.
"Certainly Inhofe, as his first year as ranking member, wants to see this as a success, and he's doing the right thing," said Roger Zakheim, a former general counsel to House Armed Services Committee Republicans, who is now of counsel with Covington & Burling.
"Coming out with McCain about a week ago is very noteworthy. ... Inhofe knows that McCain is somebody who has been passionate about getting the defense bill passed; he has worked it for many years. It was a natural place to go to bring McCain along to help with the Republican conference."
Republicans are fed up with the way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is running the chamber, and many have expressed outrage at not having a more open amendment process on the floor, with a strong contingent rallying for action on additional Iran sanctions.
The defense authorization bill routinely overcomes the drama that consistently cripples Congress, but increasingly only after overcoming its own share of hiccups. The same is shaping up to be true now. A sufficient number of Republicans are expected to support a cloture vote on the bill at the conclusion of the budget vote Wednesday to move to final passage this week, but not without griping about the process and blaming Democrats for the lack of debate.
"It's outrageous that we are presented with a Hobson's choice of voting for this bill and not being able to have amendments. ... It's unconscionable," said McCain, who is providing Republicans the foil of beating up on Reid's leadership.
On the other side of the aisle, Levin has long shepherded the defense bill through the tumultuous landscape of the Senate. He has chaired the committee for the past seven years and has served as either chairman or ranking member since 2001. Since 2008, he has twice had to negotiate a deal on the bill with the House before the Senate ever voted on it, in order to secure its passage in the chamber before it expires at the end of the year, and he has taken that route again now.
Levin is on his way out, having announced that he is not seeking reelection in 2014, and failing to complete a defense bill in the final stretch of his long career is not a legacy he endeavors to add to his resume as he approaches retirement. Democrats are in line, and he believes Republicans will get there.
"There is a lot of support in the committee because they know what the challenge was, and they know that we made an effort on the floor for a week before Thanksgiving to get votes on amendments addressed and we just couldn't get it done," he said. "So the Republicans on the committee are kind of familiar with what we've done. In terms of the other Republicans, I think most want a bill and know this is the only way we are going to get a bill."