House hopes to ‘ping-pong’ Defense bill

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday the committees are preparing to “ping-pong” the Defense authorization bill so it can pass by the end of next week.

Ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters that the Armed Services panels had little choice but to use the procedural maneuver to get the bill through the two chambers next week, rather than waiting for the Senate to pass the bill that’s stalled on the floor and go to conference committee.

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“I would defer slightly to the Senate, but as I see things now, no,” Smith said when asked if the bill could still get passed by the Senate.

“We have to have this done by the end of the year,” he said.

Smith and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said the "big four" leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services panels are working this week to resolve the differences between the two chambers’ Pentagon policy bills.

“I’m confident that we will get a deal,” McKeon told reporters Thursday.

The committees are preparing the “ping-pong” strategy because the Defense bill is facing a major time crunch with the House planning to adjourn at the end of next week.

The Senate failed to pass the Defense authorization bill before Thanksgiving over an amendment dispute, leaving only a week left where both chambers are in session.

Under the alternative process, an informal conference committee report agreed upon by the committees would be passed as a new bill by the House and sent to the Senate.

Smith said that the bill would “not necessarily” shy away from controversial issues like Guantanamo detainees, where the House and Senate bills are at odds.

But new issues that senators wanted to take up as amendments on the floor — like new Iran sanctions — were not likely to get added to the conference bill.

“Iran sanctions are not in either bill, so that we can’t air drop [them] in,” Smith said.

The House panel’s ranking member was also pessimistic about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) sexual assault measure getting added to the bill if the Senate could not agree to get a vote on it.

Senate committee leaders have not said yet whether they intend to try again to pass the bill on the Senate floor next week and get to a conference committee. Requests for comment were not returned Thursday.

If the House passes a new Defense bill through the informal conference report, the Senate would have the ability to amend the legislation, unlike normal conference reports.

But doing so with any significant amendments could threaten the bill's passage this year with the House planning to adjourn on Dec. 13, Smith said.

“We’re assuming that this is a one volley game,” he said of the “ping-pong.”

Of course, some senators might object if they don’t have the opportunity to bring up amendments to the bill, just as they did before the recess. That could make it difficult — if not impossible — to finish the bill next week.

Congress has passed the Defense bill for 51 straight years, a streak that is now threatened.

Smith emphasized that the impetus to get the bill done before the end of year was not about extending the streak but because of the consequences that would occur without the authorization legislation.

“A whole lot of bad stuff happens if we don’t pass this by the end of the year, in terms of military pay, in terms of death benefit compensation, in terms of military construction projects and on and on and on,” Smith said.

“I’d prefer the Senate to have done it in a regular order, conference committee way," he said. "But we’re down to the deadline, and if they don’t do it in this way now, that bad stuff is going to happen.”