OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate begins work on Defense bill

The Topline: The Senate voted unanimously Monday to begin work on the Defense authorization bill, but Senate leaders expressed pessimism the bill would get done this week.

The Senate’s 91-0 vote was the first action on the floor for the Defense bill, but it quickly ran into problems over an objection to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) motion to file amendments on military sexual assault and Guantánamo.

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Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, objected to the motion, saying Republicans wanted an open amendment process.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he was worried about finishing the bill before the two-week Thanksgiving recess, because that would leave little time for the House and Senate to conference the annual Pentagon policy bill in December.

Reid had said he wanted to complete work on the Defense bill before Thanksgiving even if that meant weekend sessions, but Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) insistence on getting an amendment vote delayed Senate work.

Vitter’s Show Your Exemption Act would force members of Congress to disclose which of their staff they have exempted from enrolling in the ObamaCare health exchange. Democrats are likely to complain that Vitter’s measure is not germane to the NDAA.

Vitter has accused Reid of trying to blame him for the delay when he’s trying to avoid a vote on toughening sanctions against Iran.

Monday’s floor action was the start of what is likely to be a busy week for the Defense bill on the floor, with a number of contentious amendments on everything from sexual assault in the military to the National Security Agency to sequestration.

Senators did not commit to what might get done before Thanksgiving as they left votes Monday.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a critic of the NSA’s phone surveillance programs, said “stay tuned” when asked about possible Defense amendments.

“Just wait and see what I think, you will hear soon enough,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, said when asked about an Iran sanctions vote. 

Military sexual assault debate on tap: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said one of the first amendments he wanted a vote on was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) controversial sexual assault proposal.

A vote on the amendment would be the culmination of a months-long policy battle between Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) over Gillibrand’s proposal to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

Gillibrand has the public support of 47 senators, but her measure is opposed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and senior members of the committee.

Ahead of this week’s Defense authorization debate, 11 senators on the committee — including Levin and McCaskill — wrote a “Dear colleague” letter arguing Gillibrand's proposal was "deeply structurally flawed."

"We believe strongly that this would create a system that would actually be worse for victims and significantly undermine the military system of justice and discipline," the senators wrote in the letter obtained by The Hill.

Gillibrand is expected to need 60 votes for her amendment to pass.

Thornberry backs acquisition reform: Congressional defense lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are lining up behind the Pentagon's plan to revamp its business model, according to one House Republican.

"There is a bipartisan and bicameral interest" in giving the Defense Department the legislative leeway it needs to fundamentally change the way it does business, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said Monday.

Thornberry, the House Armed Services Committee vice chairman, said Pentagon-led efforts to reform its acquisition process has the backing of committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Senate Defense panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla).

Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall made the case for the department's reform plan last week, and noted the need for congressional backing.

"What is needed, frankly, is for [DOD] to go back and take a look at all the things essentially that we've done [and] that have piled on somewhat independently and made our program managers' lives incredibly complex," said Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer.

"I want to work closely with [Capitol] Hill on this. I think this is not something we ought to do in isolation," Kendall said in a speech earlier this month in Washington.

The last major effort to revamp the department's business practice came under the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act, spearheaded by former House Armed Services Committee chief Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).

Afghan peace talks on track: A key meeting of top Afghan leaders on the Obama administration's postwar strategy for the country is still on track, despite a recent terrorist attack in the country's capitol of Kabul.

A suicide bomb ripped through a secure compound in downtown Kabul on Saturday, killing six and injuring dozens more, according to The Associated Press.

The location of the attack is where members of the Loya Jirga, an assembly of the country's most powerful tribal leaders, are scheduled to meet later this week to review the U.S. postwar plan.

That meeting to review the American strategy, known as a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), remains on schedule despite the attack, a defense official told The Hill on Monday.

"Discussions have been ongoing with the Afghans to finalize the text ahead of the Loya Jirga," according to the defense official.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to a preliminary BSA during talks in Kabul in October.

The language agreed to will form the foundation for a possible American military presence in the country after all U.S. forces are scheduled to pull out next year. 

 

In Case You Missed It:

— Iran unveils its ‘biggest’ drone

— Syrian rebel factions reach deal

— Guantánamo reviews closed to public

— Supreme Court denies NSA challenge

— Defense bill headed for time crunch

 

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