OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate begins defense authorization work

The Topline: The Senate officially began work on the defense authorization bill on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took the first procedural step on the measure, filing cloture to end debate on proceeding to the bill, a vote that’s not likely until next week.

Of course, it’s still an open question when the Senate will be able to complete work on the sweeping Pentagon policy bill.

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Reid said Thursday that he hopes to have it done before Thanksgiving, even if that means weekend work — a frequent threat that rarely materializes in the Senate.

There are numerous controversial issues on the defense bill this year, and there’s some concern that several of them could torpedo a quick and tidy finish to the authorization measure, which has passed for 51 straight years.

The legislation always attracts hundreds of amendments, and dozens of them receive votes.

The bill could see policy fights on military sexual assault, Iran sanctions, the National Security Agency, Guantánamo detainees and more.

A healthcare amendment from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) could also send the measure off the tracks.

Vitter has vowed to offer his bill, the Show Your Exemption Act, as an amendment. The measure would force members of Congress to disclose which of their staff they have exempted from enrolling in the ObamaCare health exchange.

Vitter’s insistence on another measure, which he called the No Washington Exemption Act, caused Reid to pull an energy efficiency bill from the floor earlier this year. Vitter has argued that no staffers of members of the administration should be exempt from entering the ObamaCare health exchange.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also hopes that measures on new Iran sanctions or curbs to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs will be left for another bill.

Even if Levin can avoid fights on the NSA and Iran sanctions, he’s in the middle of two other legislative battles.

Levin is looking to defeat an amendment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command, and also stop GOP efforts to remove from the bill loosened restrictions on transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said Thursday that he and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) will be offering an amendment that would strip out the Guantánamo provisions Levin had put in the bill, as well as add new restrictions on transferring detainees to Yemen.

Lawmakers see 'wall' between Congress, DOD: Tensions between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill over sequestration are being inflamed by a growing sense of distrust among defense lawmakers toward the department, Republican lawmakers said Thursday.

"It's trust and honesty that has been lacking" in the relationship between Congress and the Defense Department, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said in a speech on Thursday.

That lack of openness has created a severe disconnect on both sides of the Potomac on defense and national security issues, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) added during the same speech at a conference hosted by Defense One.

But frustration between defense lawmakers and military leaders over the department's fiscal forecasts amid shrinking department coffers have been festering, even before budget cuts under sequestration went into effect, according to Hunter.

Hunter said the fiscal uncertainty created by sequestration has "exacerbated existing problems" between Capitol Hill and the department.

"A wall has been put up between DOD and Congress," he said.

On Thursday, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale defended the department's ties with Capitol Hill.

"Frankly we don't have the answers they are looking for ... [and] sometimes they don't like the answers that they are hearing," Hale said. "We are trying to be ready but we don't know what to be ready for."

Smith backs Syrian training mission: Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Thursday called upon U.S. forces to begin military advise and assist missions for Syria's rebel factions but noted that it would take more than American intervention to end the civil war in the country.

"It's a chaotic situation and it will be for awhile. ... We need to be mindful of our limited ability to force [an] outcome," Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a speech in Washington.

The biggest threat to U.S. national security in the region is that the ongoing war between Syrian President Bashar Assad and anti-government rebels will spill over into countries allied with the United States, like Turkey and Jordan.

One key to keeping the conflict within Syria's borders would be a "very limited train and equip role" for U.S. military in the country, according to the Washington Democrat.

American military training and partnership missions have been an "effective way to advance our interests" from U.S.-led counterterrorism operations in Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere, according to Smith.

"Obviously we have some people in there that we can trust, and we need to work with them," he said. "This is going to be a projected crisis ... [and] we need friends there."

Opponents argue that U.S. aid and equipment could end up in the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that have worked their way into the rebels' ranks.

But the risks involved in taking a larger advise and assist role in Syria outweigh the risks of letting radical militant groups slowly take over the rebel movement.

"The less we help these groups, the less likely they are to survive" the ongoing war, leaving a vacuum for al Qaeda or Iran to fill, Smith said. 

 

In Case You Missed It:

— Gillibrand backers wary of sex assault bill changes

— NSA director: Snowden leaked 200,000 docs

— HASC looks to educate others on sequester dangers

— Lockheed to cut 4,000 jobs, close plants

— New HAC-D chair: Spread military cash out

 

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