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When the Defense Bill Collides With 'Extraneous' Politics

The Pentagon authorization measure always has to sail through controversy before passage. But this year's fight over budgeting is especially tough.

Welcome to the defense standoff of 2015.

"We've never faced this issue before," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said in an interview about a brewing disagreement over defense and nondefense budgeting that could shutter the government later this year. "I'm very worried."

"You can't just increase spending on the Department of Defense. You have to increase spending on other agencies," countered ranking Democrat Jack Reed in a separate interview.

These are the two senators who lead one of the most influential committees on Capitol Hill, who can't say enough good things about one another, who agree on almost everything in terms of 2016 military policy. They just happen to be on opposite sides of a politically-charged debate about government budgeting that has almost nothing to do with the inner workings of the military or their committee.

And it's interfering with their defense bill, something they have worked doggedly to put together. McCain worries that the budget disagreement could "cripple the whole process" of defense authorization. Reed says he hopes Democrats' insistence on changing the budgeting scheme will serve as a "lever that will move the process" toward a detente akin to the one struck by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan two years ago.

A Familiar Story

McCain and Reed are new characters, and the budget scuffle is a new obstacle, in a familiar story about the Armed Services Committee. The long-running narrative is about how bipartisan legislation to help the men and women in uniform and protect our country gets hampered by other, nonmilitary questions. In 2010, McCain chastised then-Chairman Carl Levin for putting hate-crimes language in the defense bill. Levin immediately countered by reminding McCain that he offered a campaign-finance amendment to the defense bill in 2000.

This year, the fight is particularly venomous, causing longtime military observers to wonder whether these external pressures will cause the National Defense Authorization Act to fall apart this time. At issue is an off-budget war fund that is used to backfill required cuts to the Pentagon that no one, Republican or Democrat, wants. Democrats protest that the war fund is a "gimmick," an underhanded way for Republicans to do what they really want (and get reelected for)—feed defense and starve other government programs.

"It's an easy way to put money in. It's defense spending. It's not offset," said Reed, who took the extraordinary step of voting against the defense bill that he helped write when it was in committee because of the off-budget funding. It was a tough vote, perhaps one of the toughest for Reed, a West Point graduate who loves the Army. It was too tough for other committee Democrats. Reed could only convince three others to join him.

President Obama has threatened to veto the measure for the same reason. That looming prospect prompted Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to call the weeks of Senate floor debate on NDAA a waste of time. Later, Senate Democratic leaders said they would not ask senators to vote against the bill on the floor. Democrats' misgivings over the bill's funding situation grew by the day, something they repeatedly discussed throughout the weeks of floor debate. Still, many caucus members like to vote for it every year.

This is the lore of the defense bill. It is notoriously difficult to oppose, although many people, Obama included, have threatened to derail it over the years. In the absence of congressional earmarks, it offers one of the closest legislative links between elected officials and their constituents. Because it deals in the minutia of the military, they can dabble in tangible details that impact their states. One small example: Sen. Marco Rubio successfully inserted an amendment to the bill authorizing a land exchange between a Navy landing field and a Naval air field in Santa Rosa County, Florida—his home state.

"You see a higher degree of involvement by members of Congress, particularly where hometown or home state projects are concerned," McCain said.

John Isaacs, a longtime defense budget watcher for the nuclear-reduction advocacy group Council for a Livable World, put it more bluntly. "What a lot of people do on the Armed Services Committee is protect weapons systems in their state," he said. A case in point is Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who noted in his statement supporting the defense bill that it included $800 million in additional funding for Virginia-class submarines, which happen to be built in his home state of Connecticut.

The Bill That Never Fails

It's simple tradition. Every year, the bill passes. It's been that way for 53 years. With each go-round, it survives new and creative hurdles. Obama has threatened to veto it for several years running, but he never has.

The measure regularly goes down to the wire. Obama waited until Jan. 2 to sign the fiscal 2013 bill. The same thing happened for the 2014 bill; it was signed Dec. 26.

But for some reason, be it simple momentum or an honest respect for the nation's armed forces, Congress and the White House don't let this one lapse. Committee members in the House and Senate are proud of this. They also are grateful that the drama seems to be limited to "extraneous" issues, as McCain likes to call them.

"We produce one bill a year, and we produce that bill every year and it sort of builds a rhythm and it has us working together. It's not as unpredictable as some other committees," said Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The House and Senate Armed Services panels also are unlike other House/Senate authorizing committees (such as banking, taxes, Judiciary) in that they are almost always in sync across the Capitol. Even when Democrats ran the Senate and Republicans ran the House, the NDAA bill bore the names of two chairmen from different parties—progressive Democrat Levin, and hawkish Republican Rep. Buck McKeon. McCain regularly meets with his counterpart in the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry. He says they get along "extremely well."

The collaboration between House and Senate committees makes the actual writing of the NDAA go relatively smoothly. "If you take a close look at the NDAA in the House and the NDAA in the Senate, you'll see that a lot of stuff drops off when we get to conference," said Smith. "We've got to get the cooperation on both sides to make it happen."

The Add-Ons

Yet it's precisely because it always passes that the bill attracts a lot of unrelated agenda items. At times, it is lawmakers' only chance to get attention for their issue. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been working for several years to pass legislation to stop metal theft—people stealing bronze stars and such from veterans' graves or monuments and selling them to scrap dealers. This week, she came to the Senate floor asking that her metal theft bill be added to the defense measure. She was rebuffed by McCain, who said it was a Judiciary Committee issue. This wasn't necessarily a surprise to Klobuchar, who was clearly frustrated. But it gave her the chance to call attention to the legislation, which isn't controversial but hasn't advanced in the slow-moving Senate.

There have been a few failed attempts to attach the Dream Act, which would legalize undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The 2010 bill included a nonmilitary provision giving federal police officers authority over hate crimes, a huge victory for civil-rights advocates.

Just last week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to attach cybersecurity legislation to this year's bill. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk proposed an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which is in danger of lapsing soon without congressional action.

These latest moves are offshoots of the fundamental disagreement about government budgeting that could culminate in a government shutdown. Democrats say they will block all spending bills, including the allotment for the Defense Department, that abide by the mandatory budget caps. Republicans say they want the caps for domestic programs to stay in place, but they say defense spending needs to increase above the caps because of escalating military situations in the Middle East and Russia. The impasse could last well into the fall.

That's why lawmakers have tried to get crucial bills like the Export-Import Bank and cybersecurity onto the defense bill. It has a remarkable track record even in the midst of this current, major disagreement that could cause a government shutdown. Even so, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees already are planning for a defense authorization conference committee in July. The bill is on a glide path as long as Obama doesn't veto it. And this time, he just might.

"At this point, the Republican plan is to hope that he doesn't. That is their plan," Smith said.

The Path Forward

Herein lies the conundrum.

Every year, extraneous fights imperil the NDAA, which is generally written with lots of bipartisan cooperation. There are always provisions in it that some people don't like, but the committee operates in an old-school legislative style. The disagreeable parts are tolerated for the sake of the generally positive whole.

Every year, negotiators find a way through the external fights, setting up a higher-stakes game for the next year. In 2010, McCain said the hate-crimes addition would doom the bill. "It will be like other authorization bills. It's just not going anywhere," he said.

He was wrong then, but he might not be wrong now. If Obama vetoes the bill, Senate Democrats believe they can muster enough votes to sustain it. That would mean the defense authorization bill dies for the first time in 53 years. Or, more likely, it sits on a shelf until Republicans and Democrats work out their differences over the budget.

Absent the budget gimmick, the bill itself has support from a broad swath of members and a second run at passage would probably be relatively simple. It just might not happen until Christmas.