Senate Leaders Under Gun to Deliver Votes on Defense Bill

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Dec. 17, 2013, 2:40 p.m.

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.”

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