Bill to rename Department of Navy has full head of steam in the Senate


A bill to rename the Department of the Navy is quickly catching on in the Senate, but faces staunch opposition from Armed Services Committee leaders.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former Marine and the sponsor of the bill in the upper chamber, has persuaded 79 senators to sign on the measure he introduced in late February.

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But even though it has broad bipartisan support, the bill's fate could be decided by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and his GOP counterpart, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who oppose the efforts to rename the Department of the Navy as the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. The Marine Corps currently operates under the umbrella of the Department of the Navy.

Another notable Armed Services member, Jim Webb (D-Va.), a former Marine and Navy secretary, also opposes the Roberts bill.

Roberts said that "there’s only about four or five [senators] who have a problem with it. We’re up to 80 co-sponsors [including Roberts] and we’ll probably get 82, 83. We could do it as a stand-alone, by unanimous consent, although someone could object. The trick is to find something that’s moving around here.”

Roberts said he is still considering his options of getting his bill to the floor, noting that the House measure also has broad backing.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) is the original sponsor of the bill, and was able to gather a record 425 co-sponsors. Jones’s stand-alone bill passed the House last month by voice vote. His provision was also included in the House’s version of the 2011 defense authorization bill. 

A natural vehicle for Roberts’s bill would be in the form of an amendment the Senate’s 2011 defense authorization bill. Both Levin and McCain dismissed the idea of filibustering the popular legislation, but as managers of the bill on the floor, they could make it hard for Roberts to get a vote on it. 

Levin’s and McCain’s most powerful weapon will be the House and Senate negotiations over the 2011 defense authorization bill. If Roberts’s bill makes it on the Senate’s version of the bill, McCain and Levin can still strip it in conference. Levin and McCain, however, would face resistance from House Armed Services Committee leaders Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who support the Jones/Roberts legislation.

In recent years, Levin and McCain have won the argument in conference with the House. A key difference from previous years is that there is a Senate companion bill this year.

The Pentagon has boosted Levin’s and McCain’s case for killing the bill. The Pentagon’s counsel, Jeh Johnson, sent a letter to Levin and Gates recently opposing Roberts’s bill. Johnson said the idea was “unnecessary, would incur additional expense of several hundred thousand dollars a year over the next several years … and would not enhance the standing or reputation of the Marine Corps.”

Roberts said the Congressional Budget Office has stated that the cost would be less than $500,000, and that the Navy could continue using its current stationery until it ran out. He says the idea is needed to honor the Marines, which are under the Navy’s administration.

Meanwhile, Jones, whose House district includes the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, has been pushing the House bill for years. Last month, he told The Hill that the bill is “a matter of respect” and said it should be able to survive Senate opposition.

“This isn’t about Walter Jones. This isn’t about John McCain. This is about the Marines who serve this country,” Jones said. “Haven’t they earned the right to be recognized?”

Levin, McCain and Webb oppose the idea based on tradition, saying that the Navy has always housed the Marine Corps and that renaming the department is unnecessary.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Webb. “There’s a long history, and the Department of the Navy has one of the oldest titles in national defense. It’s been around for 200 years, and the Department of the Navy has always had two services: The Navy, and the Marines.”

McCain told The Hill last week, "I’m against it ... I’ll certainly oppose it in conference as I have in years past.”

Levin said the number of co-sponsors on the bill “maybe” means the idea could pass the full Senate, adding, "I just oppose it."

Levin also said he has not given Roberts any assurance that the bill will reach the Senate floor, stating it would be “inappropriate” since the committee hasn’t voted on it yet.

“It’s not up to me to give that kind of assurance,” he said.

Roberts said the sheer number of co-sponsors on both ends of the Capitol should prove that the idea’s time has come. Explicit assurances that the bill will reach the Senate floor are “premature,” he added, saying that he still needs to talk to chamber leaders as well as the bill’s opponents before he decides on a strategy to move the bill.