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Congress Rushes To Pass Defense Bill; Prospects Uncertain

Dec. 9, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin. (Agence France-Presse)
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House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon / Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — A group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both houses of Congress has come together to bash out a compromise $607 billion defense funding bill — which includes $527 billion in base funding and $80 billion for the war in Afghanistan — which they will try to pass before current funds run out on Jan. 1.

With the House of Representatives preparing to wrap up business for the year on Dec. 13 and the Senate a week later, Congress is in danger of breaking its 51-year string of passing national security bills on time.

To get that done, a bipartisan group convened last week to hammer out a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that includes 79 amendments aimed at everything from sexual assault to building infrastructure in Afghanistan to funding for new platforms, like nuclear aircraft carriers and a long-range bomber.

There also are provisions for Pentagon-run anti-narcotics programs, assisting the Jordanian armed forces in securing their border with Syria, and cash aimed at the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons stocks.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Monday, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., expressed frustration with having to try to force through a bill that no one is completely happy with.

“This is not the preferred course, but it is the only course” to getting it done this year, he said.

A fellow Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., added that for members who might be upset that their hundreds of amendments failed to make the final cut, there’s simply no time left to worry about it. The question simply is, “Do I want a bill or not?”

At a late afternoon press conference with Sens. Levin and Inhofe, House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said that he only informed the House speaker, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., of the bill earlier on Monday, and “they didn’t know that we would have the bill finalized” on Monday.

McKeon added that neither of his fellow Republicans would commit to the bill until they read it and spoke to their members, but that he hoped the House would vote before time runs out at the end of this week.

Levin read out part of a letter that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, sent to the Hill earlier in the afternoon outlining the Pentagon budget accounts that will go dry in January without the passage of a bill. They include combat pay, re-enlistment bonuses and the authorities to do military construction.

“There will be a real chasm if we don’t do this, this year,” Levin insisted.

Dempsey’s letter said the expiring authorities “adds yet more uncertainty to the force, and further complicates the duty of our commanders who face shifting global threats.” Not passing a bill and leaving large swaths of the nation’s national defense structure unfunded would only lead to extending “this uncertainty and impacting our global influence,” he wrote.

Staffers from the House and Senate armed services committees began meeting Dec. 2 with a set of 87 amendments up for debate. They ground that number down to 79, which they’ll present to the full House for a vote as soon as possible.

Levin said the staffers who worked on the compromise bill focused on amendments that had already been passed by the Senate, and that amendments from Sens. KirstenGillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., aimed at taking military leadership out of the prosecution of sexual assault cases were not included in the final bill.

In a statement, the HASC ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith said that “while this bill is not perfect, it represents a bipartisan compromise reached between both chambers of Congress, and gives us the opportunity to pass an authorization bill this year.”

If the bill doesn’t make it out of the House and Senate by the end of next week, all combat and hazardous duty pay will be stopped, something several lawmakers took to the Senate floor to decry.

“What kind of an impression are we giving to our men and women who are in harm’s way when combat pay stops?” Levin said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., added that he was “deeply, deeply disappointed in the [Senate] majority leader [Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.] for not taking up this legislation,” which the SASC passed in June.

With time running out, “there just simply no way” there can be an NDAA without both houses of Congress simply passing the compromise bill, McCain added.

“It is our responsibility to our men and women in uniform” to get a bill out before adjourning for the year, he said.

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