Frustration in House over the defense bill

Some Republican members of the House Armed Service Committee are frustrated with their Senate counterparts’ delay in bringing the 2006 defense authorization to the floor. Their concern is exacerbated by the possibility that the defense authorization bill may end up as an amendment to the 2006 defense appropriations bill.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the committee, said yesterday that he hopes to get unanimous consent for the authorization bill to become a free-standing bill. But until then, he is capitalizing on the appropriations bill now on the floor by filing the defense authorization as an amendment to the spending bill with a mangers package of 81 amendments.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, is presiding over floor action on the appropriations bill as president pro tempore of the Senate. He said that he is concerned that the defense spending bill won’t move ahead in a timely fashion — meaning by Friday — and that he may file for cloture tomorrow to be sure of a Friday vote.

“We are going nuts. … I am going nuts,” said Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee. “The Senate needs to act on that bill. There are so many policy issues.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) pulled the defense authorization bill from the floor before the August recess but said he would bring it back this fall. He pulled the bill because the White House was threatening to veto it because of amendments regulating the treatment of military detainees and delaying base closures and realignments.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Supreme Court nominations have crowded the Senate schedule, and appropriators have moved ahead with their spending bill to make sure the military has enough money to keep going.

Fearing a series of unwanted amendments, appropriators usually wait until after authorization has passed. But now one of those amendments is the defense authorization bill itself — an unprecedented situation.

If the authorizing legislation stays attached as an amendment to the appropriations bill, members of the armed-services panel would not be involved in negotiations to align the House and Senate versions.

“All the work we have done, and we have struggled for months, and then we do not get to participate in conference,” Hefley fumed.

“You worry about losing the relevancy of your committee if you do not have a product,” said Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.). “We prefer that the Senate passed the bill, but it does not always work that way.”

It would be the first time since the war on terrorism started in late 2001 that Congress has not had a defense authorization bill. The bill usually has policy measures that affect military pay raises, healthcare and troop increases.

It is a “shame” and “a tragedy,” said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the defense authorization panel. “We have to get it done.”

He added, however, that he thought the authorization bill had no chance of going back to the floor on its own and would stay as an amendment to defense appropriations.

Weldon’s comments echo those of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), ranking member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, who said the authorization bill would be an amendment to the spending bill. Murtha spoke with The Hill during a C-SPAN talk show on Friday.

“The Senate will do as the Senate will do,” McHugh said. Having the defense authorization bill as an amendment “will complicate the landscape on the House side.”