Defense bill stalls in ‘nuclear’ aftermath

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked Democrats from ending debate on the Defense authorization bill.

The Senate voted 51-44 not to end debate, shortly after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) led a procedural move to change the filibuster rules on presidential nominees. The Senate will likely have to finish the Defense bill in December.

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“We must pass a national Defense authorization bill,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “If we fail to do so, we will be letting down our men and women in uniform. … If we fail to act, they will not get their full pay.”

The Senate is debating the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes more than $625 billion in defense spending for the Pentagon. Republicans have complained that there have been only two amendment votes — both of which failed — on the legislation.

Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) tried to get a deal to limit Republican amendments to 25, but Reid rejected the offer.

“The problem we have on the Republican side is we have not have a chance to have amendments,” Inhofe said ahead of the vote, though Republicans objected to having two votes on sexual assault-related amendments Wednesday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that he was opposed to passing the bill if amendments could not be offered.

"We used to have a practice of allowing votes on amendments — I know that's an outrageous demand on our part," McCain said. "If we can't have amendments on legislation, which is better: bad legislation or no legislation?"

With the Senate failing to finish the bill ahead of the two-week Thanksgiving recess, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees face a time crunch to finish a conference report and get it passed by both chambers. Congress has passed Defense authorization bill for 51 straight years.

Floor debate on the bill is typically a lengthy process, with hundreds of amendments offered and dozens receiving votes. Even if that process is expedited, the two chambers are only in session at the same time for another week in December.

After the failed vote, Levin told reporters he was not discouraged, and they would find a way to get the bill passed. Levin said there were a number of options they had to get the Defense bill signed into law.

"I'm not even close to giving up, frankly," Levin said.

What happens to the amendments on the bill, however, is less clear, including the sexual assault amendments from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

"A few Republicans decided to object to consideration of those amendments, even though all of us know they need to be voted on,” Levin said. “So how we get them voted on — how we get any other amendments voted on — I do not know at this time, other than to say there are ways of getting a bill done.”

The base Defense bill gives an across-the-board 1 percent pay raise for services members, establishes protections for victims of sexual assault and allows the transfer of Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States for trial or foreign countries.

Earlier Thursday, House counterparts said it would still be possible for work to be completed by the end of the year, if the Senate passed the legislation immediately after returning from its two-week recess.