GOP Discord Leaves Defense Spending Bill in Limbo

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) (L) listens to an aide during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee September 26,2 103 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was focused on the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Legislation.
National Journal
Dec. 9, 2013, 4:48 p.m.

Waver­ing sup­port from Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship is threat­en­ing to de­rail a fast-track plan to pass a Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act be­fore the House leaves town Fri­day, a man­euver that would spare mem­bers the em­bar­rass­ment of be­ing the rare Con­gress that fails to pass the meas­ure be­fore year’s end.

Lead­ers of the Sen­ate and House Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tees have struck a bi­par­tis­an deal in which both cham­bers pass identic­al le­gis­la­tion — the House this week be­fore ad­journ­ing and the Sen­ate the next. The plan would block mem­bers of either body from mak­ing amend­ments to the meas­ure, an ex­pedi­ency the plan’s pro­ponents say is ne­ces­sary due to the tight tim­ing.

“The choices are not, “˜Do you want to have an NDAA bill the way we are hav­ing it here, or do you want to have one the nor­mal way it takes place?’ be­cause that is not pos­sible any­more,” Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe, R-Okla., said in a press con­fer­ence an­noun­cing the Armed Ser­vices lead­ers’ deal Monday.

“There is not the time to go through a pro­cess where you are go­ing to have amend­ments,” In­hofe said. “That is be­hind us.”

But In­hofe ac­know­ledged he did not have as­sur­ances that Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship will sup­port the deal and agree to pass the bill without amend­ments in the Sen­ate.

“I can’t tell you we have a com­mit­ment on the Re­pub­lic­an side for this,” In­hofe said. “We have a lot more sup­port than we would have had, or than we did have dur­ing con­sid­er­a­tion of the bill.”

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s of­fice said it had not seen the de­tails Monday even­ing. Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., re­it­er­ated re­marks Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id made on the floor Monday that Demo­crats hope the House will send over the de­fense bill this week.

Com­mit­tee mem­bers were due to be briefed on the deal Monday night, and Lev­in said he will present the agree­ment to the Demo­crat­ic Caucus at lunch Tues­day.

“This is the only way we can pass a bill this year,” Lev­in said, point­ing out that a sim­il­ar strategy was used in 2008 and 2010 to pass the bill.

Pro­ponents of the plan are cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic about their chances in the House — which passed its ver­sion of the NDAA in June with a wide mar­gin.

But Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans were angered last month when they were un­able to of­fer amend­ments to the massive an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill in an open pro­cess on the floor. That frus­tra­tion has only grown since Sen­ate Demo­crats de­ployed the so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion to gut Re­pub­lic­ans’ abil­ity to fili­buster ex­ec­ut­ive nom­in­ees.

And if rank-and-file mem­bers are de­term­ined to slow the meas­ure, they can ob­ject to the pro­cess and throw up pro­ced­ur­al hurdles that drag it out.

None of this pre­cludes Con­gress from beat­ing the clock: De­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bills have routinely come close to lapsing only to be saved in a last-minute deal.

But for that to work this time around, Con­gress will have to get agree­ment — or at least ac­qui­es­cence — on a string of dif­fi­cult is­sues.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is push­ing a spate of budget amend­ments, in­clud­ing a meas­ure to audit the Pentagon. And the bill does not ad­dress ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions against Ir­an, an is­sue that Re­id on Monday ac­know­ledged still needs to be ad­dressed.

A seni­or Sen­ate aide said the lack of ac­tion on Ir­an sanc­tions could be a prob­lem for some mem­bers. “This duck won’t hunt with sev­er­al sen­at­ors if the bill doesn’t in­clude Ir­an sanc­tions,” said the aide. “Lev­in could have a bi­par­tis­an re­volt on his hands if he ig­nores the grow­ing calls to put a bi­par­tis­an sanc­tions text in the NDAA.”

Oth­er amend­ments that would be left be­hind in­clude: a bid from Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., to change the way the mil­it­ary deals with sexu­al-as­sault al­leg­a­tions; a com­pet­ing amend­ment from Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo., aimed at ad­dress­ing the same is­sue; and ef­forts to rein in the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s do­mest­ic spy­ing pro­grams.

House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers are try­ing to pree­mpt­ively as­suage com­plaints about amend­ments by not­ing they con­sidered 87 amend­ments be­hind the scenes and reached an agree­ment to in­cor­por­ate 79 of them in­to the re­vised bill.

The mem­bers will also claim cred­it for strik­ing a deal on how to handle de­tain­ees at the Guantanamo Bay de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity that the ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to close; the House and Sen­ate split the dif­fer­ence between their ap­proaches.

The com­prom­ise in­cludes a nod to the House by pre­vent­ing the trans­fer of de­tain­ees to the U.S., but it would al­low the trans­fer of de­tain­ees to oth­er coun­tries un­der cer­tain con­di­tions, as the Sen­ate bill had al­lowed.

The bill would au­thor­ize $552.1 bil­lion in spend­ing for na­tion­al de­fense and an ad­di­tion­al $80.7 bil­lion for over­seas con­tin­gency op­er­a­tions.

In mak­ing the case why the bill has to be fi­nal­ized this month, In­hofe stressed that au­thor­iz­a­tions for de­fense pro­grams and com­bat pay ex­pire at the end of the year. The mil­it­ary would con­tin­ue to be fun­ded even if the au­thor­iz­a­tion bill lapses, but the lack of le­gis­la­tion would pre­vent sched­uled pay in­creases and hard­ship com­pens­a­tion from tak­ing ef­fect.

And that Janu­ary will be dom­in­ated by budget and spend­ing battles over the ex­pir­ing con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to fund the gov­ern­ment and the debt ceil­ing.

“We are go­ing to be spend­ing all of our time on the CR. After that we have the debt lim­it so it’s just not go­ing to be done un­less it’s done this way,” In­hofe said. “It’s crit­ic­al that people un­der­stand that.”

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