Inhofe joins with Democrats on quick Defense authorization bill passage

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Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is in the awkward position of joining forces with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to try to jam the Defense authorization bill through the Senate next week without considering amendments.

The role places Inhofe at odds with some of his Senate Republican colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who are furious at Reid’s handling of the Senate amid the backlash of a change in rules that makes it easier to get nominees through the upper chamber.

Inhofe is also unhappy that the Defense bill isn’t getting amendment votes, but he is putting his role as ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee above any desires to stymie Reid.

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The three-term senator has been firm since he joined Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and their House counterparts at a press conference this week to unveil the final compromise bill — and insist on no more amendments.

They argued that the Defense authorization bill, which has passed for 51 straight years, had to be cleared because it has essential provisions like special pay bonuses for troops that expire at the end of the year.

“The defense bill is different than all other bills,” Inhofe, an Army veteran, said. “It’s the one bill that you have to have to give the recourses to our kids who are out fighting battles, and so it has to be treated differently. That has to have priority over process.”

The support from Inhofe and several of his Republican Armed Services panel colleagues suggest that the compromise Defense bill will have enough votes to pass the Senate next week — begrudgingly — over any GOP objections.

Inhofe predicted that half of the GOP conference would ultimately vote to move forward on the bill.

“It puts us in a difficult position because we think our first priority of men and women in the military, and things like combat pay will be cut off,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who backs the final compromise measure.

“It’s disgraceful, this whole situation, but it would be a lot better if they hadn’t just ripped the fabric of the U.S. Senate,” McCain said of Reid and Democrats.

McCain, Inhofe’s predecessor as Armed Services Committee ranking member, has provided crucial backup for Inhofe by vocally supporting the compromise bill and lobbying his Republican colleagues.

McCain joined Inhofe and Levin on the Senate floor when they first announced the deal last Monday, and even requested to take part in the press conference with the “big four” committee leaders to push for the deal, according to aides.

But while McCain has a reputation for deal making with Democrats, Inhofe is viewed as one of the more conservative members of the Republican conference.

The Armed Services Committee has lurched rightward this year after a bruising confirmation fight over Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, where Inhofe defended controversial criticism from the panel’s new member, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Inhofe was also one of just three Republicans to vote against the confirmation of their former colleague John Kerry as secretary of State.

Before Thanksgiving, Inhofe backed Republicans' objections to amendment votes on the Defense bill when Reid would not give them an open process. And he backed a Republican filibuster to block Reid from ending debate on the measure.

During the Thanksgiving recess, however, Inhofe and the other committee leaders realized the only way they could finish the bill this year was to bypass the Senate floor and finish the bill through an informal conference committee, preventing any more amendment votes.

He presented the plan at the Republican conference meeting this week, but some of his GOP colleagues quickly raised objections.

McConnell blasted Reid’s plans to move the Defense bill without amendments and accused the majority leader of ducking a vote on tougher Iran sanctions.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he would do “anything I can” to stop a bill without amendments, while Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has threatened to block the bill if his ObamaCare amendment didn’t get considered.

Republicans are likely to force a vote to end debate requiring a 60-vote threshold, but only a handful of GOP votes would be needed, and several of Inhofe’s Republican colleagues on the Armed Services panel have said they would back him.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Thursday that she would support a vote to end debate, and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss) told The Hill Friday he was also on board.

“The unhappy choice is, for the security of the country, we have to do this thing one more time,” Wicker said. “But I denounce this sort of tactic on the part of the majority leader.”

Other Republican committee members said they were undecided ahead of the vote, which is expected to be held on Wednesday.

If the bill successfully clears the Senate next week, Inhofe will receive praise from the defense industry that has been frustrated with congressional gridlock, according to one senior defense industry source.

“I think there are a lot of Republicans who want to vote the same way and probably can’t vote to support it,” the source said. “Industry is certainly going to be very supportive.”