With efforts intensifying to bring the annual defense authorization bill to the Senate floor before the Thanksgiving recess, senators are lining up for battle on a number of explosive issues.
The National Defense Authorization Act is one of the few measures that reliably makes its way into law every year, now 51 times in a row and counting. So it is targeted as an increasingly attractive vehicle for lawmakers to force debates on a number of hot-button national security and defense-related issues.
National Security Agency spying, military sexual assaults, Guantánamo Bay detainees, and Iran sanctions are just some of the major fights that lawmakers are pushing to take up in the debate.
"We've got so many [amendments] to offer. We have got sexual assaults, we have got NSA, we've got Guantánamo — we have a lot of issues. This is what happens when there is only one train leaving the station," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Questions about National Security Agency spying tactics have continued to mount ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden made a splash earlier this year with leaks about the NSA's routine domestic surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans' phone and Internet records through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Now, amid continued revelations about NSA's monitoring the calls of friendly foreign leaders, as well as the servers of major Internet corporations such as Google and Yahoo, reform advocates are bolstering their arguments that the NSA is out of line and overdue for serious reforms.
"What I'm interested in is doing everything I can to build a bipartisan coalition that makes it clear that the Congress is responding to the millions of Americans who are saying we refuse to give up our individual liberties for the appearance of security," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "This is going to be a long battle."
Although many senators and their aides argue that a debate on the NSA seems all but inevitable, it is a divisive issue that does not fall neatly along party lines but pits establishment leaders from both parties against civil libertarians on either political edge. Reforms proposed by Sens. Wyden, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would ban the NSA's domestic bulk-data collection would be significant changes. Such reforms are opposed by a solid faction of members who side with the administration and the intelligence community on this national security question, such as Intelligence Committee leaders Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
It is a fight that neither Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., nor Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Chambliss wants to have on the defense bill. And it is an issue that puts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. — who has largely defended the status quo — in the awkward position of not wanting to pick sides between long-standing committee chiefs Feinstein and Leahy.
A Senate leadership aide said that the defense authorization bill could come up as soon as the end of next week. But if that start date is pushed back and there is only one week for debate, it will be harder to incorporate a debate on the NSA, too.
For his part, Levin is determined to pass the defense bill through the Senate with as little drama as possible.
"I would like to keep about everything I can off it, if we are going to get a bill passed," said Levin, adding that he would like to fend off several controversial measures, especially the NSA. "Because NSA is a huge subject in and of itself, it deserves probably three days, or a week, and the Judiciary Committee has not yet held its markup of its bill, so it is not yet ripe. As debated as it's been in the public, it has not yet been resolved here."
On other contentious matters, Levin supports the president's goal of closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, and he included provisions in the defense bill to ease transfers of detainees out of the facility. He did not allow amendments on the issue in committee, saving the fight for the floor. Levin said he is bracing for efforts to scuttle his provision, particularly from those on the right. The House bill would allow indefinite detentions at Gitmo to continue.
"The Guantánamo issue is going to be a huge issue," Levin said. "There is an effort to strike that language."
Levin is also bracing to try to fend off further Iran sanctions, which the administration opposes as it attempts negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear ambitions. The Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction, is working on legislation, but if it doesn't act fast, others are planning to bring up the issue in the defense debate.
"If the Banking Committee doesn't move, you can bet your life there will be an effort to impose new sanctions on the defense authorization bill," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
But by far, one of the most heavily anticipated battles centers around the continued problem of military sexual assaults.
The Armed Services Committee bill included several reforms to address the scourge of unwanted sexual contact in the armed services, which the Defense Department estimated topped 26,000 cases last year. Still, only a little more than 3,000 cases were reported.
The big fight there will be over a bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision to prosecute military sexual assaults out of the chain of command and radically reform the military justice system.
Gillibrand plans to hold a press conference Wednesday to bring the issue back to the spotlight and gin up momentum. She has 46 cosponsors, but getting even 50 or possibly 60 votes would be an uphill battle, fervently fought by the Pentagon and Armed Services Committee leaders.
"They are fighting it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is championing the effort with Gillibrand. "They fought "˜don't ask, don't tell.' They fought a lot of things — but at the end of the day, we are the leaders, and you cannot sit back after 20 years of empty promises and let things continue."
Boxer is also setting her sights on less controversial measures. She introduced a bipartisan and soon-to-be bicameral bill Tuesday that enjoys broad support from Armed Services Committee members. It seeks to improve pretrial investigation tactics to ensure that survivors of assaults are not forced to undergo bruising 30-hour interrogations, such as what happened to an alleged victim in the recent Naval Academy sexual-abuse scandal.
Levin has said he's still scrubbing the bill, but he generally supports it.
"I'm very much of favor of reforming," he said. "It looks very good to me, but I want to wait for the response of experts on the subject."