OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate fails to move NDAA

The Topline: A vote to end debate on the Defense authorization bill failed in the Senate Thursday by a 51-44 vote, pushing the bill into at least December and threatening its passage this year.

The vote, which required 60 votes for passage, occurred after the two parties were unable to agree to a process for considering amendments to the sweeping Pentagon policy bill.

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The Senate is now headed into a two-week recess for Thanksgiving, which will spark a major time crunch in December to get the bill done this year.

The Senate does not return until Dec. 9, while the House plans to adjourn at the end of that week, on Dec. 13.

Before the Defense bill gets signed into law, the Senate still must pass it — no easy task, as evidenced by the proceedings Thursday — and then the two chambers must appoint conferees, finish a conference report and get that passed by both chambers.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that he was not discouraged despite Thursday’s setbacks, and still believed the bill could be passed in some manner.

Levin told reporters there were a number ways the two chambers could get the legislation finished, noting that it had been previously passed on the last day of a session by unanimous consent.

“I’m not even close to giving up, frankly,” Levin said.

House Armed Services leaders sounded a similar sentiment, issuing a statement ahead of the Senate vote saying there was still time to finish a bill.

“There are still pathways to passage for this vital bill,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a rare joint statement.

While aides have said the regular conference report process is likely not feasible, one of the options being considered involves bypassing the Senate floor and going straight to conference.

Nicknamed “ping-pong,” the House and Senate panels would here convene an informal conference report to come up with a final bill. Then, the House would either pass the report as a new bill and send it to the Senate, or the Senate would strike its full bill and insert the conference report.

In either scenario, the cooperation of the full Senate is necessary.

Kerry refutes open-ended Afghan commitment: Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday sought to assure Congress that Washington's recent postwar pact with Afghanistan would not lead to an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces in the country. 

The U.S. troop commitment under the postwar deal being reviewed by senior leaders in Kabul "is way shorter than any kind of [other deal by] years and years," according to Kerry. 

The postwar plan, known inside the Pentagon as the bilateral security agreement (BSA), was presented by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the Loya Jirga, an assembly of the Afghanistan's most powerful tribal leaders, on Thursday. 

The BSA would go into effect in January 2015 and last roughly a decade, should the Karzai administration and the jirga approve the plan. However, Kabul retains the option to terminate the deal before the deal expires in 2024, according to the terms of the postwar pact. 

But critics of the plan argue the deal would keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan until 2024, a politically unpalatable prospect, given Americans' war weariness after over a decade of combat in the country.

Such an extended troop presence in Afghanistan would also be another financial burden on the Pentagon, which is already struggling to cope with an increasingly difficult fiscal environment. 

But on Thursday, Kerry sought to quell those concerns, telling reporters the White House has no intention of keeping a U.S. force in Afghanistan for the indefinite future. 

Pro-Syria hackers working with Iran: The pro-Syrian hacker group, dubbed the "Syrian Electronic Army," is likely working in conjunction with or directly for Iranian military and intelligence on cyber warfare operations. 

The group, which has pledged allegiance with embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, "is an extension of the Iranian state," former CIA and National Security Agency chief Gen. Michael Hayden said during a Thursday speech in Washington. 

The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has previously claimed credit for other hacks of media companies, including sending a false message from The Associated Press's Twitter account earlier this year about an explosion at the White House. The message briefly caused stock prices to tumble.

Most recently, SEA hackers hit the websites of The New York Times, Twitter and The Huffington Post's U.K. site. 

Groups like the SEA launching attacks in cyberspace pose a growing problem to U.S.-led efforts to defend critical defense and national security infrastructures in the government and civilian world. 

Straddling the line between a state-backed cyber warfare outfit and an organized criminal organization, the flexibility the SEA and others have to ramp up the number and type of cyberattacks at a moment's notice is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. and its allies. 

SEA hackers can go from disinformation and harassment cyber operations to outright denials of service or other, more damaging types of attacks at the drop of a hat, Kevin Mandia, CEO of cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said during the same speech.

That said, groups like SEA and others could easily train their sights on targets inside the United States or against American allies, Hayden and Mandia said. 

Sexual assault amendments in jeopardy: Senate gridlock could stop amendments from being considered to the Defense bill in the upper chamber — putting a vote on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) sexual assault proposal in jeopardy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had sought votes on Gillibrand’s bill and a competing proposal from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Wednesday, but Republicans objected because of the amendment impasse.

Now the Senate might not have time to consider a series of amendments to the Defense bill, outside of those that could be quickly cleared by unanimous consent.

“A few Republicans decided to object to consideration of those amendments, even though all of us know they need to be voted on,” Levin said of the sexual assault amendments. 

“So how we get them voted on — how we get any other amendments voted on — I do not know at this time, other than to say there are ways of getting a bill done.”

Gillibrand told reporters she was disappointed that a vote on her measure to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command did not happen, but she said she remained confident the Senate would vote on her proposal.

“I wanted to vote on my bill yesterday, I wanted to vote today. But we will get a vote, and I will look forward to it,” Gillibrand said.

 

In Case You Missed It: 

— House holds out hope for NDAA passage 

—Sexual assault measures in jeopardy

— House intel bill drills into insider threats 

—Grassley blocks DHS nominee Jeh Johnson 

 

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