Eyes turn to Senate for defense debates

Now that the House has passed its defense authorization bill, attention turns to the Senate as it prepares to take up the mammoth policy legislation for fiscal 2011.

While the Senate Armed Services Committee’s bill contains nothing at this point that would trigger a presidential veto, there will be internal fights over several provisions, the most polarizing over the repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

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Republicans are eyeing a provision that would require all service chiefs to certify that repeal — allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly — can be implemented consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.

The way the congressional provisions are written now, only President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have to provide that certification.

In letters solicited by Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz), the service chiefs said that they wanted Congress to delay voting on the issue until Dec. 1, after the Pentagon finishes a review of how the military should carry out the changes. That puts them at sharp odds with the White House.

Gay-rights groups fighting for repeal have called a potential amendment that expands the certification process to include the service chiefs “a killer amendment” that would delay open service for years.

Even if supporters for repeal cannot avoid such an amendment and do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate that ensures passage, the bill will be in the hands of a Senate-House conference committee.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is the only one of the Big Four — the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ Armed Services committees — to back repeal. McCain and Rep. Buck Mckeon (Calif.), the top Republican on the House panel, are fighting it. The Democratic House chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), has opposed repeal from the beginning; he was one of the principal writers of the current ban.

The conference committee will also have to wrestle with authorized funding for a secondary F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine that the Pentagon does not want. The administration has threatened to veto any defense bill containing funds for the engine made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. So far the threats seem real, and the gay ban repeal does not appear to be a good buffer to avoid the veto.

Another McCain-backed provision mandating that the president deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the Southwest border will ignite floor debate of the defense authorization bill. The amendment was proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) during the markup of the defense authorization bill, but has strong support from McCain, whose state of Arizona has some of worst violence related to the drug trade.

Levin, however, said he thought it would be unprecedented for Congress to direct the commander in chief to send troops to a specific location. Levin vowed to fight the provision on the floor, or in conference negotiations with the House, which did not include such a provision.

McCain voted against his own committee’s bill because of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal provision — not the first time he has done so.

Meanwhile, the administration is fighting a $1 billion cut in its $2 billion request for U.S. military training of Iraqi security forces. Levin acknowledged before the Senate left for the Memorial Day recess that he expected Obama to dislike his panel’s massive cut.

This article has been updated and corrected from its original version.

“Some of us feel pretty strongly about this issue: that it's time — given the amount of money that Iraq is taking in oil revenue and the fact they cut their own defense budget in half in the parliament — it's kind of hard to justify putting billions of dollars in for the Iraq army,” Levin said.