Senate eyes plan B amid defense bill standoff

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks to a reporter before heading to the Senate Chamber for a vote regarding a nomination on Thursday, December 2, 2021.
Greg Nash

Senators are mulling pulling a sweeping defense bill that has been stuck in limbo for days, and instead cutting a deal with the House on a final version of the legislation. 

The Senate left town for the week without an agreement on a path forward for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sweeping bill that sets spending top-lines and policy for the Pentagon. 

Typically both the House and Senate pass a version of the NDAA, then they hold a formal conference committee where they negotiate a final version that is then taken up by both chambers.  

But GOP Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is blocking an amendments package on the NDAA until he either gets a vote, as part of the defense bill, on his amendment banning imports from China’s Xinjiang region, where administration officials have accused the government of carrying out genocide against Uyghur Muslims; or action in the House, where his proposal has stalled for months.  

Absent a quick resolution, senators said that the Senate is expected to scrap trying to pass its own defense bill and instead work out a deal with the House on the final version of the legislation, which would then be passed by the House and sent to the Senate. 

“I think there’s still a small hope that we’re going to be able to consider amendments on the floor, but if not, I think you’re going to see action taken in a de facto conference,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).  

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said that he viewed leapfrogging a vote on a Senate bill and skipping to the unofficial conference as the most likely option, adding: “That’s been plan B all week.” 

Leadership on the House and Senate Armed Services committees has already been trying to work out potential sticking points between their two versions of the bill. 

That plan could come together quickly as Congress barrels toward the end of the year with a long to-do list. An update on the House’s floor schedule for next week from Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) indicated that the lower chamber would vote for a second time on the defense bill. 

“Additionally, the House will pass the National Defense Authorization Act, again, to provide our troops with the pay they deserve and our military with the tools it needs to carry out its missions safely and effectively,” the update said.

The Senate is expected to turn to nominations starting on Monday night, as well as hold a vote next week on a GOP effort to strike Biden’s vaccine mandate for large employers.  

Senators say they haven’t completely abandoned hope that Rubio could allow for quick amendment votes on the Senate’s defense bill, breaking the logjam on the bill. 

“I don’t know if we’ve reached a final conclusion on the Rubio issue or not, but I suspect if we didn’t, we will,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who noted that absent that, there was the threat of the informal conference . 

In a potential offramp, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who spearheaded the Uyghur bill in the House, told Bloomberg on Thursday that he believed “very strongly that we will move forward” next week with legislation.  

“We think it’s important to move some China legislation, hopefully much of it focused on human rights and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. We want to see that get over the finish line in some form,” he said.

A spokesman for Rubio didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about if the House putting a bill on the schedule for a vote next week would be enough for him to drop his block of the amendments package, which would let the Senate move its own defense bill next week. 

But Rubio indicated that he viewed the House passing a bill from McGovern as a solution that would resolve the stalemate. 

“The solution for them is to either include it or to pass the McGovern bill which is the companion to what we’ve passed out of the Senate,” he said.  

But absent that, Rubio has shown no signs of backing down and letting the Senate’s defense bill move forward. The Senate previously passed his bill, which is bipartisan, by a voice vote, though administration sources confirmed to The Washington Post that the State Department wants a more targeted approach. 

Democrats say that including Rubio’s amendment in the Senate’s defense bill has sparked a so-called blue slip objection in the House, meaning that a member has flagged that they believe it violates a clause in the Constitution that states that bills generating revenue have to originate in the House.  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that Rubio’s problem was procedural, not because of objections on the policy itself from the House. 

“The Senate does not have the right to have a revenue or an appropriations matter. That is the prerogative of the House of Representatives. Read the Constitution, read the Constitution,” she told reporters. 

Pelosi added that Rubio had “been a good champion for human rights in China” but that “I don’t know why he’s using this to hold up the [Defense Department] bill when he knows that there will be a strong Uyghur bill. You’d have to ask him.”  

Tags Ben Cardin Human rights Human rights in China Marco Rubio Mike Rounds Nancy Pelosi National Defense Authorization Act NDAA Roy Blunt Steny Hoyer Uyghur genocide Uyghur Muslims Xinjiang province

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