Republicans wary about time squeeze on defense bill

Republican lawmakers are wary about potential plans to streamline floor debate on the Defense authorization bill in an effort to squeeze it into a jam-packed lame-duck session.

The Defense authorization bill typically has days of robust debate on everything from Guantanamo detainees to social issues in the military, with hordes of votes on sometimes controversial amendments.

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With this year’s lame-duck session facing an unprecedented number of big-ticket items, the Defense bill’s fate is in doubt. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested to reporters this week that the debate might have to be shortened, compared to prior years, in order to get the bill done.

That has some Republicans on the committee concerned about the broader implications for the bill.

“Whatever the historical precedent has been is what I want to follow,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If you don’t want to take tough votes, don’t come to the Senate. I don’t feel the need to create a new precedent for the Defense authorization bill.”

The Defense authorization bill, which sets policy for the Defense Department, authorizes funding levels and gives troops pay increases, has passed for 50 straight years. While there’s often contentious debate on issues that threaten its passage, the overall bill enjoys wide bipartisan support.

Among the controversial issues set to be debated in this year’s bill is the U.S. terror detention policy, which took up several days of floor time and needed an 11th-hour compromise on an amendment.

A group of senators planned to challenge the military detention policy in this year’s authorization bill, and even put off debate on the issue when the bill was passed out of committee so it could be debated on the full floor.

Also hanging over this year’s bill is the threat of sequestration and the potential for $500 billion in across-the-board defense cuts over the next decade.

The full House passed the Defense authorization bill in May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed it later that month.

Both Levin and House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) wanted to get the bill done quickly this year because of the looming “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year. But the bill has languished since May.

Part of the reason for the delay in the Senate is sequestration itself. As the issue grew more politically polarized this year, it became less likely the bill would get floor time because the debate would be used by Republicans to criticize President Obama over the defense cuts, even though the authorization bill does not take sequestration into account.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican, has taken to the floor several times to criticize Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for delaying the bill in the summer months.

“Can’t we as a body for the sake of those men and women whose lives are on the line pass a defense authorization bill,” McCain said on the floor in July. “Is the Senate Majority Leader oblivious?”

Asked about the plan to shorten debate, McCain told The Hill Thursday he didn’t feel that an artificial limit was needed to get the bill through.

“The way it usually works, you take the bill up, you start working, and by Thursday you take the votes and we get it done,” McCain said. “My experience is as the weekend approaches, those amendments disappear.”

The Senate is leaving town this week until after the election, when it will have a two-month window to try to deal with the expiring Bush tax rates, the sequestration cuts and a possible increase in the debt ceiling. There’s also a number of other legislative issues that have not been completed this year, like the new farm bill and cybersecurity legislation.

An aide to Levin said that no formal proposals had yet been suggested to Reid to get the Defense bill on the floor during the lame-duck session. Levin has said repeatedly that Reid knows how important it is to him and the committee that the bill is completed.