Senate gridlock imperils Defense bill

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are scrambling to salvage this year’s Defense authorization bill after the Senate failed to pass the measure this week.

The Senate on Thursday failed to pass a motion to end debate on the bill by a 51-44 vote, as Republicans filibustered because Democrats were limiting the number of amendment votes.

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The gridlock threatens the 51-year streak that Congress has passed the sweeping Pentagon policy bill, as the two chambers are only in session together one more week this year.

The time crunch — and the bad taste left following the bitter Senate fight over the filibuster this past week — are raising questions about whether Congress can actually move swiftly enough to pass the Defense bill.

Despite the difficulties, the heads of the House and Senate Armed Services committees say they remain confident that a bill can get done this year — even if that means bypassing the Senate floor's normal debate on the bill.

“I’m not pleased, but I’m not discouraged,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said after Thursday’s vote. “One way or another, we’re going to try to get this bill done, and we’ve done it before under even more difficult circumstances.”

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) issued a rare joint statement Thursday saying there was time to pass the bill in December.

“There are still pathways to passage for this vital bill,” McKeon and Smith said in a statement.

But it’s still unclear how robust of a bill can get passed in December and in what manner it will reach President Obama’s desk.

Committee aides said Armed Services panels have a number of levers they can pull to pass the bill, which authorizes more than $600 billion in Defense spending.

The ideal route is to pass the bill as intended through the Senate when it returns from recess Dec. 9. Then the two chambers could quickly appoint conferees and complete a conference report to be passed by both the House and the Senate.

That option would require an agreement between Senate Democrats and Republicans on amendments, something that was elusive this past week.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, had offered for each side to get 25 amendments this past week, after GOP leaders initially said they wanted 50.

Democrats did not agree, however. The good news for the Senate is one of the sticking points in the amendment fight — a measure on Iran sanctions — appeared to be resolved when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that would get taken up on the floor on its own in December.

Nevertheless, the timetable makes it unlikely that controversial measures can be considered, leaving Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) military sexual assault amendment in jeopardy.

“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. “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.”

If an agreement can’t be worked out, the committees are looking at an option that would bypass the Senate floor and put the bill straight into conference committee, nicknamed “ping-pong.”

Under that contingency plan, an informal conference committee would iron out the differences in the House and Senate bills, and then that conference report would be passed by both the House and Senate.

In that scenario, most of the controversial measures in the bills where the two chambers disagree would likely be stripped out of the conference report, aides say, so no one is likely to object to the measure’s quick passage.

If two Armed Services panels run out of time for a full conference report, they are prepared to quickly pass a slimed down version of the bill, according to aides, so essential provisions like troop pay raises are signed into law.

Levin said Thursday that plenty of work would be done between the committees’ staffs over the Senate's two-week recess so the committees would be ready to go in December.

Aides say the committees are not looking at the possibility of waiting until next year to pass the bill, warning that it could get overtaken by other items like the debt-limit and never passed.

“For 51 years we’ve been able to do this every year, before the end of the calendar year, and we’re going to do it that way this year,” one committee aide said. “The big four are determined that what’s going to happen.”