Armed Services panel could bypass Senate floor for defense bill

The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering bypassing the Senate floor and taking the Defense authorization bill straight to conference committee, sources tell The Hill.

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The move is only being weighed as a contingency option, and the committee’s first preference is to get the bill passed through regular order during the lame-duck session, according to three sources with knowledge of the committee’s deliberations.

But preparations are being made to skip the floor if needed so the bill can pass before the end of the year, continuing a streak of 50 years that the defense policy bill has been signed into law.

“Chairman [Carl] Levin (D-Mich.) is going to be looking at all the options he’s got,” said one defense source. “He doesn’t want to have a big asterisk under his tenure of the chairmanship of not being able to get the defense authorization bill done.”

Levin’s office declined comment for this story.

Both Levin and House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) want to get the bill passed, and the disagreements between the two chambers are relatively minor compared to prior years.

The bill has been stalled by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) since it passed out of committee in May. Reid didn’t want to put the bill on the floor in the height of the election season, in part to avoid GOP attacks on the president over sequestration cuts to defense.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, railed against Reid several times on the floor for not bringing the bill up in the summer months. 

Levin has urged Reid to give the defense bill floor time in the lame-duck sesssion, and he may get it amid the fiscal cliff deliberations. But the bill would take several days with many amendments, and the session will be jam-packed with other high-priority pieces of legislation.

While the election is over, the bill could still be stymied by the sequestration fight that will be a key part of the fiscal cliff debate, sources say.

If the authorization bill were to bypass the Senate floor, the House and Senate panels would likely convene an informal conference committee to hash out their differences.

Once an agreement was reached, the bill could move forward in two ways, sources say. The House could introduce the conference report as a new bill, pass it and send it to the Senate, or the Senate could strike the full defense bill and insert the new language on the floor.

The Senate would still have to pass the bill, of course, but taking the alternative routes could avoid the lengthy amendment process on the floor.

The House passed the Defense authorization bill in May.

Sources stressed that both committees — whose staffs have started meeting about the conference process — want to avoid exercising the option of bypassing the Senate floor, a process nicknamed “ping-pong.”

But the committees also insist that the defense bill, which sets military policy and provides things such as pay raises for troops and war funding, must pass this year.

While there are frequently controversial measures in the authorization bill, it nearly always passes with large bipartisan majorities. The Senate Armed Services Committee passed it unanimously in May.

One of the biggest differences between the House and Senate bills is the overall topline funding number, as the two sides are approximately $3 billion apart on a bill that tops $600 billion. That fight has roots in the Budget Control Act’s reduction of military spending.

There are also several policy issues in the House bill, such as the banning of gay marriage ceremonies on military bases and the creation of an East Coast missile defense site, which would have to be reconciled with opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The contingency plan for the defense bill is not a new idea. The Armed Services committees had to scramble when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” fight stalled the defense authorization bill in 2010.

Congress wound up passing a new version of the authorization bill without the “don’t ask” language in the final days of the lame-duck session, while repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military in separate legislation.