Senate Republicans back away from floor fight on missile shield

Senate Republicans are signaling they intend to forgo a messy floor fight over funding for a new East Coast missile defense shield.

Republican senators who have called for a third U.S. missile defense site say they may not try to include funding for the shield when the Defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor later this year.

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They say the fight for the shield is better left to conference committee, since the House has already approved $140 million for an East Coast missile interceptor site in its authorization bill.

“I don’t know if I’m going to bring an amendment because I like what the House has done, so I may let that get fought out in conference,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), one of the most vocal Armed Services members on the issue, told The Hill.

“Because in the absence of some of the Senate Democrats’ votes, I don’t want to undermine what the House did because I think they did the right thing.”

One senior defense lobbyist said that bypassing the Senate was a smart move, because a fight in conference committee was still likely to yield some money for the project.

“If this is in NDAA, this is something that’s important to the House, and they are not going to say, ‘OK, we’ll let it go away,’” the lobbyist said, adding that the Senate Republicans also have a seat at the table in conference committee. “It’s a lot of money. Something is going to come out of the bill.”

But pushing the issue to conference could give missile shield supporters long odds at success, some say. 

“I think the normal process is to split the difference, but in this kind of budgeting environment, without some strong momentum behind the East Coast site, it will be hard to get a new start going,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.  “You can’t really do the site with half the money.”

The East Coast missile shield is one of the few areas of defense spending that could be boosted amid sequestration, but support for a third interceptor site has split along party lines. 

The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee has pursued a third missile site on the East Coast for two years, but the Democratic-led Senate Armed Services panel has blocked the money to build it.

The missile shield could become one of the most heated issues during freewheeling Senate debate on the Defense authorization bill — if Republicans bring forward an amendment.

Republicans stepped up their calls for a site earlier this year after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would deploy additional interceptors to existing missile defense sites (the U.S. has interceptors in Alaska and California) in response to belligerent threats from North Korea. 

Republicans say that an East Coast site must be built to counter Iran’s pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which defense intelligence reports have said could occur by 2015.

But Democrats argue that a third East Coast site isn’t necessary because military officials have said they don’t see a need yet, and the missile interceptor technology is not developed enough to warrant an expansion.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has said that he is opposed to any new East Coast site unless the military signs off on it. In June, he distributed a letter from Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), that said there was “no validated military requirement” to deploy an East Coast site.

Levin told The Hill last week that he thought supporters of an East Coast missile shield wouldn’t want to risk a losing vote on the Senate floor.

“I’m not so sure people who believe there should be another site would want to lose a vote,” Levin said. “And I think they’d lose this vote, given the military’s position.”

Some Republicans disagree. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), one of the biggest proponents of the East Coast site in the House, said senators could be convinced that an East Coast shield is necessary.

“I’m a strong believer that every member of the Senate is three classified briefings away from being a fan of the East Coast site,” Turner told The Hill. “They need to look at the intelligence briefings upon which this need is based, look to the experts, those who called for this. ... As people become aware of the specific threats to the U.S. and the vulnerabilities, an East Coast site becomes more of an inevitability.”

Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was still too soon to say how Republicans would approach the issue on the Senate floor.

“We’ve got to do whatever is necessary to get a third site,” Inhofe said last week. 

Last year, a similar scenario played out when the House included funding for a site, and the Senate did not.

A compromise was reached in conference committee for the Missile Defense Agency to study the issue and pick at least three possible sites for the East Coast missile shield for an environmental impact study.

The Pentagon this month released a list of five finalists for potential sites in Maine, New York, Ohio, Michigan and Vermont.

The selection of the sites injects a regional element into the debate over the missile shield, and eight of the 10 senators in the five finalist states are Democrats, including Levin.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, said in May he wanted the site built in New York — if the military decides that it’s a good idea.

“Should military experts determine that a new system on the East Coast is necessary, workable and cost-effective, Fort Drum and Griffiss Air Force Base are uniquely capable for the job,” Schumer said. Fort Drum was the site chosen in New York.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said that he was withholding judgment on an East Coast site until the Pentagon finished the congressionally mandated study.

The Pentagon’s study, which is due at the end of the year, will identify at least three sites that could support the East Coast missile defense shield. But the study is not addressing whether the idea is feasible or necessary, said MDA spokesman Rick Lehner, who added that the agency’s position of “no validated military requirement” has not changed.

At least two senators aren’t waiting for the study to say they want their state dropped from the list of potential hosts.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) responded to Vermont’s inclusion as a finalist by saying he was “emphatically against” putting a missile site in the state.

“We think it’s an absurd idea and we think it’s not going to happen,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, concurring with Leahy’s assessment.

Ayotte said that her state would be happy to take Vermont’s place as a finalist.

“If Vermont doesn’t want it, New Hampshire will take it back on the list,” she said.