Clock is ticking on $607B defense bill

Greg Nash

The House and Senate are suspending regular order on a $607 billion Defense authorization bill in a last-ditch effort to get it to President Obama's desk before the end of the year.

The move likely means there won't be votes this year on tougher Iran sanctions or a controversial proposal to take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.

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The defense panels hope to quickly pass the measure through both chambers — without amendments — because the House plans to adjourn at the end of the week.

The strategy has no guarantee of success. But the lawmakers are confident they can pass the bill, which has been signed into law for 51 straight years.

“Yes, it’s without a net, and yes, we’ve done it before,” a senior committee aide said in a background briefing with reporters Monday.

The deal announced by House and Senate Armed Services leaders would authorize more than $600 billion in defense spending and ensure key provisions like special military pay aren’t disrupted.

There are still roadblocks ahead, particularly among Republicans in the Senate, who filibustered the Defense bill before the Thanksgiving recess over a dispute on amendments.

Republicans were angry that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would not allow votes on their amendments, including a potential Iran sanctions measure and an amendment from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) related to ObamaCare.

Reid said before the recess that he would bring an Iran sanctions measure to the floor, but the fact that the Defense bill will not get amendments in the Senate could make it less likely for any sanctions measure to get a vote this year, as the Obama administration is pushing Congress to hold off.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued on the Senate floor Monday there wasn’t time for the Senate to pass the bill through regular order and then go to conference committee before the House adjourns.

“There’s simply no way all of those events can take place to get a Defense bill passed,” Levin said.

The panel’s ranking member, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), concurred, and urged his colleagues to pass the measure.

“We have only one way we’re going to get a Defense authorization bill,” Inhofe said on the floor. “I don’t like the way that it was done, but I like the end product.”

The Pentagon is also getting involved with the lobbying effort. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey sent a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to finish the bill this year and listing authorities that expire at the end of the year, such as combat pay.

Senior committee aides said they hope the measure can pass by unanimous consent in the Senate, although senators would be able to try to force amendments to the bill.

The House will be able to pass the measure through a closed rule or by suspension to avoid amendments, according to the aides.

The House is expected to take up the measure later this week, and the Senate would try to pass it next week — leaving no room to change the bill through amendments with the House gone.

Under the agreement reached by the House and Senate panels, the National Defense Authorization Act authorizes $526.8 billion in base defense spending, as well as $80.7 billion for war funding in Afghanistan.

The committee aides emphasized that the bill was a “full” Defense bill, and not slimmed down despite the expedited process.

The panels reached a compromise on Guantánamo, where the House and Senate had competing measures on the transfer of detainees there.

The final bill will continue a prohibition on the transfer of detainees to the United States, but will ease restrictions on transfers overseas, according to aides. It will not include a restriction on transfers to Yemen that was in the House version of the bill.

On sexual assault, the panels did not include a provision from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.

But they did include a series of reforms that represent a major overhaul of the way the military handles sexual assault, including stripping commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts, requiring mandatory discharge and adding victim protections in the pre-trial process.

The bill does not weigh in on a military pay raise, allowing the Obama administration’s proposed raise of 1 percent to go through, rather than the higher 1.8 percent that was in the House’s bill.

On a new East Coast missile site that Republicans want built, the Defense bill continues studying the issue but does not move forward with construction of a new site.