Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and Rand Paul are objecting to a bipartisan deal that would fast-track the defense authorization bill, setting up a split GOP caucus and leaving Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a difficult choice to make.
Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has reached a deal with top committee Democrat Carl Levin that is designed to move the bill before year's end. To make that happen, the House would pass a compromise version of the bill before their expected departure Friday, and then the Senate would pass an identical version the following week. The plan would not allow for amendments to the bill, and that's a sticking point for Paul and Coburn, who told reporters on Tuesday they object to the bill.
"I'm not OK," said Coburn. "When was the last time we had a [defense] bill without any amendments on it? Over 50 years ago."
Said Paul: "We will do everything we can to try to force debate around here."
The fast-track plan's fate now rests partly in the hands of McConnell, whose decision will be a guide — albeit not a binding one — for other chamber Republicans as they decide whether to move the measure. And support for passing a bill without amendments is made all the more difficult by Harry Reid's decision last month to invoke the "nuclear option," a rules change that gutted the minority's ability to filibuster nominees.
The battle is not purely over procedure: Paul, Coburn, and other senators are all pushing amendments that would achieve key policy priorities. Coburn is seeking several budget-related amendments, including an audit of the Pentagon.
Paul said he wanted to see amendments on indefinite terrorist detentions, on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand plan to change the way the military deals with sexual assault, and on a provision aimed at sending questions about National Security Agency decisions to the Supreme Court rather than the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
Inhofe said he plans to talk to McConnell and presumably the rest of his colleagues at the weekly lunch Tuesday, but he stressed that there is not time for a floor debate on the bill.
"We are talking to him. We are going to have a conversation on this at 1 today," he told reporters. "But I'm very hopeful. We are down now so the choices are few: Either we have this bill, this compromised bill, this big core bill, or we don't have a bill at all. And the disaster that would take place if we did not have a bill at all we could not do."
He insisted that this is a make-or-break moment for the defense authorization bill.
Inhofe said, "It's not a strategy, it's whether you want a bill or not."
The Levin-Inhofe deal — which also has the backing of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon — includes 79 amendments that leaders rolled into the bill behind the scenes. The defense bill has passed 51 years in a row, and there is pressure to continue the trend, especially as failing to finalize the measure by year's end would delay combat pay increases and other changes to soldiers' compensation.
Across the aisle, Levin appears to have a smoother path to caucus support, but he's waiting to hear from his fellow Democrats as he discusses the bill during their lunch Tuesday.
"I have not heard of [objections]; that doesn't mean there aren't any," he said. "I would hope not, because I think it is in everyone's interest to pass a bill."
Levin added there is no other choice: "This is not the best way to proceed obviously, but we tried for a week and there was so many objections that we couldn't even get cleared amendments passed, so there's no way we could pass a bill here today or tomorrow and get it to the House before they adjourn," he said.