Senate votes to start work on Defense bill

The Senate voted 91-0 Monday to advance the Defense authorization bill.

The procedural vote ended Senate debate on whether to proceed to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes more than $600 billion in defense spending. The Senate then passed the motion to proceed by voice vote.

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Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the NDAA is the “most important piece of legislation that Congress takes up every year.” He said he would offer an amendment that allows the Pentagon to prioritize and spread out the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration.

“This is an irresponsible and dangerous course,” Inhofe said ahead of the vote. He said it was unfair that the military has had to bear the brunt of sequester cuts, risking military preparedness. 

Time is running out to complete work on the “must-pass” legislation. Congress has passed an NDAA bill for 51 straight years.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had said he wanted to complete work on the Defense bill before Thanksgiving, even if that meant weekend sessions, but Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) insistence on getting an amendment vote delayed Senate work.

Vitter’s Show Your Exemption Act would force members of Congress to disclose which of their staff they have exempted from enrolling in the ObamaCare health exchange. Democrats are likely to complain that Vitter’s measure is not germane to NDAA.

Floor debate on the Defense authorization bill is typically a lengthy process, with hundreds of amendments offered and dozens receiving votes. If final passage gets pushed back until after the Senate’s Thanksgiving break, it gives a House and Senate conference committee little time to work out differences by the end of the year.

Senators are also expected to offer amendments to NDAA on issues including restrictions on transferring Guantánamo detainees, military sexual assault, Iran sanctions, the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and Syria.

Reid tried to call up the first two amendments but Inhofe objected, saying he wanted an open amendment process.

The first two amendments Reid tried to file were from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) regarding sexual assault in the military and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) on Guantánamo Bay.

"What would be a real shame would be to have to file cloture on the bill as it is written," Reid said. "I would hope that if we have to do that we could get cloture on it and get on with the conference."