Tension as Defense bill's fate in limbo

The fate of the 2011 defense bills is in limbo even as the new fiscal year quickly approaches.

The next few weeks will be tense for the defense community, which is still in the dark about when the Senate will take up a defense authorization bill.

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The majority leader’s office says that the 2011 defense authorization bill is on the list of “possible items” that the upper chamber might consider during the upcoming work period.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) objects to bringing the bill to the floor because he opposes two provisions: one that would repeal the military’s ban on openly gay service members, and a second that would allow abortions to be performed at military hospitals, so long as federal funds aren't used.

McCain's objection could be overcome with a motion to proceed, followed by a cloture vote to end debate — a move that would require 60 votes, and thus the support of at least one Republican.

The uncertainty over the 2011 defense authorization measure is prompting gay-rights groups to up their pressure on senators and party leaders to take up the bill. The legislation contains a provision that would repeal the military’s ban on openly gay service members, known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The activists want to see the Senate take up the 2011 defense authorization bill the week of Sept. 20. Otherwise, they fear that the much-awaited repeal of the Clinton-era law may be stopped in its tracks. If the bill doesn’t move in September and slides into the period after the election, Republicans have made it clear they will only agree to a continuing resolution to keep funding the Defense Department.

If that continuing resolution gets carried into next year, a new defense bill would have to be written under a new Congress. Getting a repeal passed through both chambers in the next session would be difficult; Republicans, who mostly oppose repeal, could win a majority in the House this November and gain seats in the Senate.

Congressional sources contacted by The Hill are already intimating that the Senate will not take up the authorization bill until after the midterm elections. Until then, the top priorities for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other leading Democrats are likely to be the economy and jobs.

Any delay on the defense authorization bill could also stall action on the 2011 defense appropriations bill in the Senate. Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was expected to start marking up the defense budget next week, but that may be delayed. The committee said it may have an update on the timeline Monday once the members return from recess.

Unless the Senate finishes its business on defense, the required conference to merge the bills with the House will not be possible before the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. The House Appropriations Defense subcommittee has already written the 2011 defense budget and the bill is awaiting full committee backing — a move that is expected this work period.

The Pentagon is preparing for the possibility of a continuing authority and continuing resolution to pay for its operations. The Department of Defense is working with the defense committees to ease some of the restrictions that typically come with continuing resolutions and authorizations. Operating under the previous year’s budget levels, for example, normally prevents the Pentagon from starting new programs.