Republican Discord Leaves Defense Policy Bill in Limbo

“There is not the time to go through a process where you are going to have amendments,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.,  said. “That is behind us.” “There is not the time to go through a process where you are going to have amendments,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said. “That is behind us.” J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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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