WASHINTON — In a sudden reversal, two veteran Republican U.S. senators stood aside Wednesday morning and allowed the Senate to move ahead with a bill to fund the Pentagon and other federal agencies beyond March 27.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., were requesting Senate leaders delay a planned Thursday vote on the Senate’s mini-omnibus appropriations bill. The duo and their staffs found nearly 60 programs in the legislation, at a cost of $6.4 billion, which were not included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
They finished that scrub of the legislation, which originated in the House and was revised by Senate appropriators, around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night, Coburn said.
“We have no objection to moving on to the bill,” Coburn said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, moments after the chamber was gaveled into session. “There was no attempt to filibuster the bill ... just to do our jobs and read the bill.”
Moments later, McCain even apologized to his Senate colleagues for any confusion or worries about a filibuster.
“We are ready to move on with amendments,” McCain told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “I look forward to amendments and debate. ... We can debate and vote.”
But McCain echoed Coburn, stressing he and Coburn simply wanted more time to continue reading the legislation.
Their plea for more time led Reid early Tuesday evening to file a cloture motion, meaning a vote to end debate would have had to wait until Thursday. Reid withdrew that motion after McCain and Coburn spoke Wednesday morning.
The items that drew Coburn’s and McCain’s ire were included in a full 2013 DoD appropriations bill attached to the House-passed continuing spending measure.
“We’re supposed to be cutting spending, yet they’re adding it,” McCain told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “It’s remarkable.”
Among those items is “$65 million for Pacific Coast salmon restoration for states including Nevada,” McCain and Coburn said in a joint statement issued Tuesday evening, “a program that even President Obama mocked in his 2011 State of the Union address.”
The GOP senators also are objecting to a provision that “directs the Department of Defense to overpay on contracts by an additional 5 percent (totaling $15 million) to contractors who are Native Hawaiian-owned companies,” according to the statement.
Coburn and McCain also have qualms with another provision that “provides $154 million for Army, Navy and Air Force ‘alternative energy research’ initiatives.” Their objection? They claim recent data shows that program is “paying $26 per gallon for 450,000 gallons of alternative fuel,” according to the statement.
The veteran lawmakers also don’t understand why the House bill would prevent the Army from retiring C-23 Sherpa cargo planes the service no longer wants, and that no governor would accept when the Army offered the planes to them.
McCain also cited a provision that would provide “$120 million for civilian infrastructure in Guam, which both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees explicitly prohibited,” according to the statement.
On the Senate floor Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he “respects” the duo’s right “and even duty” to “raise questions about spending.”
Durbin pinned the blame for the flap on House Republicans, who wrote the original version of 2013 continuing resolution legislation that it passed last week.
“We took the House version and simply brought it to the floor,” Durbin said. “This is the House Republican bill. And the measures the gentleman from Arizona raised” originated in the GOP-controlled House, Durbin added.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said, “We have a way of addressing [Coburn’s and McCain’s] concerns.”
Before the Tuesday flap, House and Senate appropriators had predicted the CR issue would be settled quickly. Leaders from both parties say they want to avoid a government shutdown, though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week accused House Republicans of crafting their CR in a manner to guarantee a shutdown later this month.
If the House and Senate fail to pass a final CR by March 27, the federal government will shut down. Both chambers’ bills would fund the Pentagon and other agencies through Sept. 30.
Reid warned his colleagues to be prepared to work “the first few days” of a planned Easter recess (March 25-April 7) to get a CR done and avert a government shutdown.
“We wasted one day,” Durbin said. “Yesterday was the day to begin the amendments.”