Senate leader to push defense authorization bill next week

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., intends next week to bring up the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill, placing on his September agenda a bill that had been considered by many to be a long-shot for floor consideration before the election break.

During a meeting late Monday, Reid informed Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of his plan for the bill, which prescribes Pentagon spending levels and sets policy for the Defense Department, a Senate leadership aide said.

If the defense bill is considered next week, it would thrust into the spotlight - just six weeks before the election - hot-button issues such as gays serving in the military and abortions at military hospitals.

Debate on the bill typically takes more than a week of floor time. Considering the tight schedule for September and Republican objections to several provisions in the bill, the authorization measure appeared to be a likely candidate to slip to the lame-duck session.

Last week, Reid's office said the bill was on a list of possible items that could come up during this work period. However, a Reid spokeswoman said the Senate will need Republican support to bring up the bill.

But by bringing the bill up next week, Reid would be making good on statements last month that the authorization measure was high on the priority list for September.

"We're trying to see a path forward on that so debate can start on that as soon as we get back in September," he said in early August.

Gaining GOP backing for the defense bill has proven difficult because of a provision that would repeal the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law banning openly gay individuals from serving in the military.

Republicans, led by Armed Services ranking member John McCain, have argued that Congress should not act on the issue until the Pentagon completes an in-depth review of how best to implement a repeal of the 17-year-old law.

The defense bill would not lift the ban until after the Pentagon completes its review and certifies that a change in policy will not harm military readiness or hurt unit cohesion. The House passed identical language during floor debate on the authorization bill in May.

Because of his opposition to the "don't ask, don't tell" language in the bill and objections to other provisions, McCain objected to a unanimous consent request in August to bring the measure to the floor in September. A spokeswoman for McCain said last week that the senator's position on the bill remains the same.

Republicans also oppose a provision authorizing military hospitals to perform elective abortions if the procedure is paid for by private funds. Current law allows abortions at military hospitals only to save the life of the mother or in the instances or rape or incest.

But Democrats can likely get 60 votes to overcome any filibuster on the bill. During the Armed Services Committee markup in May, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts both voted for the measure.

In May, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts both voted for the measure.

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