Sen. Carl Levin ()
Sen. James Inhofe
WASHINGTON — The typically easy-going chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee fumed. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., had just seen members block a final vote on a must-pass Pentagon policy bill amid a partisan brouhaha over amendments and new filibuster rules.
So as Levin talked with a handful of reporters as he left the Senate chamber Nov. 20, he expressed “amazement” and, in a rare pessimistic moment, acknowledged the bill “is in jeopardy.”
Just moments earlier, the chamber killed a procedural motion that would have set up a final vote on a bill that authorizes about $522 billion in base 2014 defense funding, and another $80 billion for global operations. It also contains myriad weapons program provisions and reporting requirements.
Levin and Senate Armed Services Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., had earlier in the week expressed confidence that the chamber would amend the bill — though saying floor debate could get bumpy — before Thanksgiving.
But as the week plodded on, the Senate again failed to perform its most basic charge: legislating.
Senate sources say Levin, Inhofe and senior staffers were working out how to proceed during a two-week Thanksgiving recess that began shortly after the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was temporarily shelved. That includes a back-and-forth over how many amendments to address on the Senate floor and which ones will be excluded.
The latter point is the key to getting the NDAA process back on track in time to save a 51-year congressional streak of passing a final version of the legislation.
Republican Senate sources said they have a long list of NDAA amendments, and they intend to again fight Levin and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to ensure those items receive a vote on the floor.
“Reid filled the tree [then] blocked amendments” that GOP senators wanted to add to their list, said an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “We have plenty of other amendments that we’d like to do, but they’re not allowing those, either.”
GOP aides blamed Reid, saying he does not want Democratic members to face tough votes on several hot-button issues as an election cycle begins. One is an Obamacare amendment that was pushed during the failed NDAA process by Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
A Vitter spokesman declined to comment on the senator’s plans for NDAA Round 2. But an Inhofe aide left the door open to excluding Obamacare amendments, which Democrats said are not germane to a Pentagon policy bill.
One Republican source accused Reid of trying to avoid a vote on a new Iran sanctions amendment before the Thanksgiving break. But Reid appeared to bow to pressure from his own caucus by saying on Nov. 25 that the chamber would take up a sanctions bill in December.
While GOP aides spent the first recess week hammering Reid, Levin told reporters Nov. 20 that “we’ve got 50 amendments that we could agree to right now.”
Late on the evening of Nov. 19, Levin said Inhofe delivered a list of about 20 additional amendments from GOP senators that he and other Democratic leaders had never seen.
“There was just a whole lot of amendments which had not been agreed to by Democrats,” Levin said. “I’m amazed by it.”
Levin subtly questioned whether Republicans would ever drop their demands for an “open” amendment process by expressing bewilderment at Republicans blocking a vote on two must-address amendments on Pentagon sexual assault policy.
“Everybody agrees” those must “be voted on,” Levin vented. “Why couldn’t we vote on that yesterday, when the majority leader said, let’s vote on these two — why not?
“We could have done this in a week, frankly, if there weren’t any objections to making progress on amendments that both sides agreed to,” Levin told reporters.
“We get the argument there’s another list of amendments that we haven’t agreed to that they want us to [approve] without agreeing to the ones we have agreed to,” Levin said, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “It becomes a bottomless pit.”
A spokeswoman for Inhofe declined to comment on Levin’s description of the NDAA breakdown.
NDAA proponents were working behind the scenes to avoid a sequel when the bill hits the floor again, likely the week of Dec. 9, sources said. The Senate could just start over when it reconvenes, taking the entire week to finish the NDAA and possibly giving a House-Senate conference committee time to come up with a compromise that could be approved by both chambers before Dec. 31.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised the notion of bringing up the House version, quickly adding some amendments and moving to a conference committee.
Or the Senate could pass the bill without amendments by a unanimous consent vote.
“One year we did it with no amendments,” Levin said. “We’re not trying to do it with no amendments.”
But, the retiring Levin made clear — as was echoed in conversations with aides the following week — the two sides remain far apart on how to handle the hundreds of amendments senators want to offer.
“There’s a huge difference,” he said. “The number might be the only thing in common.”