The annual bill to authorize defense programs hit a land mine Wednesday when Senate Republicans objected that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was refusing to allow debate on their amendments. Some charged that Reid was shielding President Obama from an unwanted debate on new Iran sanctions.
The Senate was expected to vote Wednesday evening on competing amendments to address sexual assault in the military from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., but the plan blew up when Reid could not get a unanimous-consent agreement to move forward.
"We just ran into the ditch," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, after Reid temporarily abandoned his effort to bring debate on the amendments to a close.
Later in the evening, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., announced a compromise proposal: Senators from both parties could each bring 25 amendments to the floor, or half the number sought by Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, leader of the Steering Committee for Senate Republicans. "If we refuse to do that, I am going to go ahead and vote to support cloture and support our bill," Inhofe said.
Shortly after Inhofe offered the plan, Reid returned to the floor and filed a cloture motion on the defense bill, setting up a vote for Friday on whether to end debate. That gives both sides time to try and work out an agreement on amendments Thursday.
Frustration from Republicans who want to have a broader debate on a range of issues and push forward additional Iran sanctions simmered for much of the day Wednesday while senators on the floor debated the Gillibrand and McCaskill amendments.
Gillibrand continued to lobby holdouts to try to persuade them to support her measure, which the Pentagon vociferously opposes. It would take the decision of whether to prosecute military sexual assaults out of the chain of command.
By late Wednesday, Gillibrand had won a few more supporters, including Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., bringing her list of known backers to 53. But 60 votes are needed to move to a final vote on the amendment, and it appears doubtful Gillibrand will clear that hurdle. It is more likely that the Senate would instead adopt a far more moderate amendment from McCaskill and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb. Their amendment, which has been criticized by victims-advocacy organizations who say it maintains the status quo, would allow sexual-assault victims to challenge unfair discharges from the service and would add additional checks over commanders' prosecution decisions.
Several Republicans said anxiety that Reid would not allow any additional amendments to be considered after the two planned votes on the sexual-assault amendments led to the objection to proceed from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Coburn is seeking consideration of at least eight amendments to cut costs in the Defense Department, particularly one that would audit the Pentagon. "We have a Rules Committee of one now," Coburn said. "The majority wants to pick our amendments, even relevant amendments. That is not the way the Senate is supposed to work. That totally denies me my right as a minority senator to offer improvements to the bill."
Coburn said his audit amendment would save $25 billion and he has several others he is pushing but is not demanding a vote on each of them. "I have all sorts of other amendments that will save a ton of money in the Pentagon.... And I can't get a guarantee that I can get a vote," he said.
Coburn said that a vote to table his amendment or to include it in a manager's amendment would satisfy him.
Inhofe said that Coburn was putting together a revised proposal that would allow limited debate on some relevant or related amendments, but there was another, largely unspoken concern among Republicans. A number of GOP senators would like to bring up amendments to impose new sanctions on Iran unless it pulls back on its nuclear ambitions, but Democrats know that the Obama administration does not want that public debate in the midst of talks in the Middle East. "That is the one that the president is saying he doesn't want considered," Inhofe said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he suspected the holdup Wednesday likely had to do with concerns about the ability to address Iran sanctions. "I don't know if this is Iran," he said. "Something is driving this, because I'm ready to vote on this thing," he added, referring to the sexual-assault issue.
"Iran looms large here. I don't know. I can't explain to you why we are having this problem. It's the only thing I can think of," Graham said.
Earlier in the day, other Republicans sounded off on Iran.
"My hope is that we will continue to increase sanctions," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "I don't know if we will get an opportunity to do that procedurally on this bill, but I think we need to continue to push forward on that."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a cosponsor of an Iran-sanctions amendment offered to the defense bill from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said that a group of Republicans were still pushing for an opportunity to consider additional Iran sanctions.
"Senator Reid is the one who basically controls whether we get a vote on the Iran-sanctions amendment, and ... I'm very concerned that Secretary [of State John] Kerry and the president desperately want a deal, and what usually happens then is you get a bad deal," Cornyn said.
"We are still trying to work through that. We need to maximize our negotiating leverage, not minimize it."
Reid said there have been 350 amendments filed on the defense authorization bill, but that every time he reaches a tentative agreement with Republicans they move the goalposts.
"We are not in a position to deal with this for all the reasons that we have talked about here for several months," he said on the floor. "We are not seriously legislating anymore...."
Reid said that reaching agreements on limited amendments doesn't work, because if 13 are agreed to, as had been discussed, then members just turn around and ask for more. He pressed for votes on the sexual-assault amendments.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., argued that if the Senate cannot complete the defense authorization bill this week, it stands in jeopardy of not being conferenced with the House and enacted for the first time in 52 years. That is because there will be only one week after the Thanksgiving recess when both the House and Senate are in session.
"We need to get this bill finished this week, or else we are not going to get a conference report," he said.