Amendment Snafu Snags Defense Bill

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) walks through the Capitol Building on October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. The government has been shut down for 14 days.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Nov. 20, 2013, 5:06 p.m.

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.

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