Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo

Senate Republicans on Monday blocked a mammoth defense policy bill, throwing the legislation into limbo as Congress heads into a packed year-end schedule.

The Senate voted 45-51 to start winding down debate on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets spending levels and policy for the Pentagon. But that is short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the hurdle.

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the only Republican to vote with Democrats to advance the bill, while Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) voted against moving forward along with 46 GOP senators.

The setback comes amid a stalemate on allowing votes on amendments to the bill. Leadership previously got a deal before the Thanksgiving recess to allow for 18 amendment votes, but that agreement was blocked by several Republicans who didn’t get their own proposals included. 

Democrats are leaving the door open to trying to move the bill again. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) took steps on Monday night to make it easier to force the vote for a second time.

“Republicans just blocked legislation to support our troops, support our families, keep Americans safe. Republican dysfunction has again derailed bipartisan progress,” Schumer said from the Senate floor, calling the GOP stance “inexplicable and outrageous.”

“Despite this vote, Democrats will continue to work to make sure our troops get paid and our vital defense programs can continue,” Schumer added.

But Republicans are accusing Schumer of trying to jam the defense bill through the Senate after delaying bringing it to the floor. It can take up to two weeks to bring the defense bill up for debate and get it to a final vote.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted to advance the defense bill in July, and the delay in bringing it before the full Senate for a vote sparked frustration from Senate Republicans and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

“No matter how important it is, that doesn’t mean that we’ll accept the fact that Sen. Schumer wants to jam it through the Senate without adequate consideration. Let me be clear: Sen. Schumer has put us in this position today. He waited more than two months after we filed the NDAA to bring it to the floor. Two months,” said Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

As part of the deal that leadership tried to clear before the break, the Senate would have voted on 18 amendments, with Schumer noting that Inhofe and Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) had also worked out a deal to include at least an additional 50 amendments in the bill without needing a vote on each proposal. Of the 18 amendment votes, 11 were either GOP amendments or bipartisan amendments.

But several Republican senators blocked that package. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday pointed to several issues that Republicans want additional amendment votes on that were not part of the 18-amendment package offered before the Thanksgiving break. They include a proposal for sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has the backing of GOP Sens. James Risch (Idaho) and Ted Cruz (Texas). The House-passed defense bill included Nord Stream 2-related sanctions.

“The Democratic leader seems to want to put national security last. My colleague is trying to overcorrect for poor planning by cramming a two-week bill into two or three days’ time. I imagine there might be finger-pointing at Republicans if that proves impossible,” McConnell said.

“Nothing less than the safety of the American people is at stake. This is more important than political timetables for partisan wish lists,” he added.

In addition to the pipeline, Republicans want votes on amendments related to support for Ukraine and China.

A White House official told The Hill that the administration is working with lawmakers “on a legislative package of sanctions in the event Russia invades Ukraine further” with an aim at placing maximum penalties on Russia without alienating European allies. Axios previously reported that the German government had urged Congress not to impose Nord Stream 2 pipeline sanctions and voiced concerns that doing so would “damage transatlantic unity.”

“We’re seeing some members of Congress press for sanctions that that don’t actually deter Russia but do threaten Transatlantic unity, in order to score political points at home — all while holding up critical national security funding on a range of unrelated issues. It makes no sense,” the official added to The Hill. 

But the pathway for the defense bill is unclear. Typically, the House and Senate each pass their version of the bill and then enter formal negotiations to come up with a final deal. Once that happens, the two chambers pass the final agreement and send it to the White House for the president’s signature.

Congress has to pass separate legislation this week to fund the government by the end of Friday in order to prevent a shutdown, likely punting the defense bill until at least next week absent an agreement.

It also faces a mid-December deadline for raising the nation’s debt ceiling, and Democrats want to pass President Biden’s climate and social spending bill by the end of December.

Reed indicated that lawmakers could look for alternative paths to reaching a final deal on the defense bill by the end of the year. Aides had floated earlier Monday that the House and Senate could work out a deal without going to a formal conference that would then be taken up by the Senate.

“We will have to do the NDAA. It will be done. I think Sen. Inhofe is committed to that, as I am. And we’ll have to use procedures that are appropriate to get it done,” Reed said. “But we just missed an opportunity to send a clear message that we support this legislation.”

Updated at 9:28 p.m.

Tags Adam Smith Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Jack Reed Jeff Merkley Jim Inhofe Jim Risch Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Ron Wyden Susan Collins Ted Cruz

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