Dodging a vote on Iran sanctions

The push for Iran sanctions took a major hit on Monday as lawmakers on the Armed Services panels moved to rush through a $607 billion Pentagon spending bill without amendments.

The leaders said they wanted their mammoth bill to be rushed through both chambers because the House plans to adjourn at the end of the week.

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) argued there simply isn’t time to consider amendments on Iran or anything else.

“This is the only way we can pass a bill this year,” Levin said at a press conference unveiling the committees’ agreement on the Pentagon policy bill.

But one Senate aide predicted Levin, Inhofe and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wouldn’t have the votes to end debate on the measure without a vote on Iran sanctions.

“There is no way this moves forward in the Senate with no amendments,” the aide said. “The only way Reid may get 60 votes is if Iran is attached.”

Lawmakers in both parties, along with Israel’s government, were upset over an interim nuclear deal the Obama administration signed with Iran. The deal lifted $7 billion in sanctions on the avowedly anti-U.S. government but did not require Iran to end enrichment of uranium.

In the House, there has been talk of moving a new Iran sanctions bill before the end of the year; in the Senate, the Defense authorization bill was seen as the best vehicle given its must-pass status with many members. It would also be difficult for President Obama to veto the measure.

Levin and Inhofe are more interested in getting their bill through Congress, however, and some Democrats might have wanted to prevent Obama from being put in a difficult position.

It is possible that Reid could decide to bring up a separate sanctions bill on his own, but such a scenario is unlikely given the Senate’s workload over the next two weeks.

The Senate is scheduled to be in session through next week, and is set to consider the Defense bill, a possible budget deal and several nominations. Its schedule was thrown back further on Monday by bad weather, which forced the postponement of Monday’s votes.

Inhofe argued his Republican colleagues would not block the Defense bill over Iran.

He said members who were upset Reid prevented an Iran sanctions vote late last month on the Defense bill felt differently now that the only choice was one between having a bill and not having one

“I’m the strongest supporter of the strongest sanctions we can have,” Inhofe said. “So now we will eventually address it, but personally I lost that battle.”

Tougher Iran sanctions aren’t the only controversial measure that’s being left out of the Defense bill. In addition, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other criminal cases outside the chain of command was not included, along with a competing amendment from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Reid had sought votes on both measures before Thanksgiving, but Republicans objected over the broader amendment dispute.

Nevertheless, the bill includes more than two dozen provisions 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 pretrial process.

The committee leaders from both chambers said they are now talking to their leadership and members to convince them to quickly pass the bill.

They said they want the House to pass the measure later in the week, and then the Senate would take it up next week — leaving no room to change the bill through amendments with the House gone.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the House leadership hadn’t yet committed to a vote, and that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wanted to meet on it first. A Cantor spokesman declined comment on the bill.

In the Senate, Inhofe said he did not yet have the support of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move the bill forward without amendments but noted that McConnell was stuck because of the bad weather.

The Armed Services leaders emphasized the negative consequences that would occur if the bill is not finished before the end of the year, including a disruption of combat and re-enlistment pay for troops. They also noted the crowded calendar at the start of next year made it unlikely the Defense bill could get onto the Senate floor in January.

The Pentagon joined in the lobbying effort too, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey sending a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to pass the bill as soon as possible.

“Allowing the bill to slip to January adds yet more uncertainty to the force and further complicates the duty of our commanders who face shifting global threats,” Dempsey wrote.

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

The committee leaders said the bill was a “full and comprehensive” Defense authorization 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 would continue a prohibition on the transfer of detainees to the United States but would 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.

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.