GOP Defense Bill Squabble Leaves Measure in McConnell’s Hands

Nuclear option hangs over choice between Inhofe’s bipartisan deal or Rand Paul’s demands for deliberation.

Stone wall: McConnell & Co. frowns on Obama delays.
National Journal
Dec. 10, 2013, 7:44 a.m.

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.

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