Defense bill headed for time crunch

The Defense authorization bill appears headed for a major time crunch in December as the Senate looks unlikely to pass it before Thanksgiving recess.

If the Defense bill slips until December, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees would have less than a week to convene a conference committee, finish the conference report and get the measure passed in both chambers, according to the current schedule.

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The Senate doesn’t return from its two-week Thanksgiving recess until Monday, Dec. 9, while the House plans to adjourn for the year at the end of that week, Dec. 13.

Democratic leadership aides said last week there’s unlikely to be enough time to finish the sweeping Pentagon policy bill this week, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) previously said he wanted to do so.

There’s a dispute between Senate Democrats and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) over who is to blame for the legislation stalling.

Democratic leadership aides say the delays caused by Vitter's quest to get a vote on his ObamaCare exchanges amendment have torpedoed the Senate’s chances of passing the bill before recess.

Last week Vitter’s filibustered a compound drug bill in an effort to get an amendment vote on his Show Your Exemption Act, which would force members of Congress to disclose which of their staff they have exempted from enrolling in the ObamaCare exchanges.

But Vitter said Friday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) was trying to make him a scapegoat when it was Reid and the White House who were looking for a way to avoid a vote on imposing tougher sanctions against Iran.

The White House opposes the sanctions measure, which could have come up as an amendment to the Defense bill this week just as the administration is undertaking new nuclear talks with Iran.

“I will absolutely not give Reid the ability to hide the Obama priority of blocking Iran sanctions," Vitter said in a statement Friday.

One Democratic leadership aide dismissed Vitter’s accusation, and said work on the Defense bill could have begun last week.

“That's pretty rich coming from a senator who just single-handedly blocked a bipartisan, non-controversial, lifesaving pharmaceutical safety bill for an entire week,” the aide said. “We could have started on the defense bill this week if it weren't for Sen. Vitter's single-handed obstruction.”

Vitter said he plans to submit his ObamaCare measure as an amendment to the Defense bill, but he will not stop the Senate from moving swiftly on the legislation.

The Senate plans to vote for cloture and pass the drug bill Monday and then proceed to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes more than $600 billion in defense spending.

The time needed to wade through hundreds of amendments that will be submitted to the Defense bill would allow the Senate to wait on a vote on the Iran sanctions amendment while the six world powers meet with Iran for the latest round of nuclear negotiations beginning Wednesday.

The Defense bill is one of the few “must-pass” pieces of legislation remaining in Congress, as it has passed for 51 straight years.

Should the bill get pushed back in the Senate until December, there are ways for the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to expedite the process to pass it this year.

The two committees can “pre-conference” the bill during the recess, with aides working out compromises in the differences between the two bills.

That won’t necessarily be a simple task, however, as the Senate is expected to take up several controversial amendments during floor debate, including on military sexual assault, Guantánamo detainees and National Security Agency surveillance programs, as well as Iran sanctions.

Another option would be to move a stripped-down version of the bill that doesn’t include controversial measures, but would still authorize key provisions for the military like pay raises for troops.

A House leadership aide did not respond to a question about whether the House might stay in session longer in order to complete the Defense bill. The House passed its version of the Defense authorization measure in June.