Sen. Carl Levin, right, said he will press Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, to bring next year's NDAA to the floor sooner than this year's version. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin says he will push Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid to bring the annual Pentagon policy to the floor sooner than late in the year.
The Michigan Democrat told reporters Tuesday morning he expects the Senate will hold a key procedural vote on a House-passed national defense authorization act (NDAA) “late tomorrow afternoon.”
But it is not a sure thing that enough Republicans will join the chamber’s 54 Democrats amid a bitter partisan fight over Reid’s handling — or, as GOP members and aides depict it, his mishandling — of Republican amendments.
One defense industry lobbyist who has been closely tracking the NDAA’s late-year trajectory told Defense News Tuesday: “I’m confident they will get cloture on NDAA tomorrow.”
GOP senators and aides continue playing coy about whether they will block the Pentagon policy bill in order to send a message to Reid.
Pro-defense senators from both parties acknowledge the Armed Services Committee finished its bill long enough ago that Reid could have brought it to the floor months before budgetary crises and political bickering created, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., puts it, a “poisonous” Senate environment.
“We got this bill passed out of committee in mid-June,” Levin told Defense News. “We can’t do it faster.”
Asked if he will press Reid next year to bring the panel’s NDAA to the floor without allowing it to sit idle for six months, Levin said: “Oh, yeah.”
Should Senate Republicans revolt Wednesday afternoon and block a final vote on the defense legislation for the second time in four weeks, Levin has said it might be dead for good. That would mean a slew of authorization provisions on weapon programs and military benefits would expire.
McCain told reporters on Tuesday that he “thinks we can” get the needed 60 votes.
“But it’s a disgrace … that the majority leader of the Senate wouldn’t bring this bill to the floor of the Senate until this late,” McCain said. “It’s another reason to be very angry. And it’s another reason to increase the bitterness around here.”
McCain bluntly signaled a failure to pass an NDAA for the first time in 51 years could set a new precedent that the Pentagon and defense sector would not like very much.
“The next step is not doing it at all,” he said.
The chamber’s “Maverick” had a message for his GOP colleagues: “If you don’t go along with this, you don’t defend the country, OK?”
Levin did not guarantee the measure will get the required 60 votes to end debate and move to an up-or-down vote that will need 51 votes to send the bill to the president’s desk. But he sounded more upbeat than he did last week that ample support is developing.
“I’m optimistic. My ranking member strongly supports it,” he said, referring to the committee’s top Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “I think most Republicans on the committee would, so I’m optimistic there will be a lot of Republican support.”
If Levin and Reid get seven of the committee’s 12 GOP members and hold all Democrats, that should cut off debate and set up a final vote Thursday or Friday.
The chairman told Defense News he has had several one-on-one conversations with Republican senators, urging them to support the defense bill.
Levin and McCain spoke to reporters as the Senate was voting to end debate on a controversial budget plan crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would provide the Pentagon and other agencies relief from sequestration in 2014 and 2015.
For the Pentagon, the measure would bring over $20 billion back to its 2014 budget, and $9 billion back in 2015. It would do so with things like other federal cuts and changes to military benefits, which some Senate GOP hawks say is unfair.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., told reporters she wants a legislative fix as soon as possible; she said she found a replacement to the benefits changes “without much work at all.” To that end, Levin and McCain said they intend to study potential alternatives that could be introduced next year.
Citing his own conversations, McCain told reporters “all four military leaders support” the Ryan-Murray deal despite the veterans’ benefits changes, referring to the chiefs of the military services.
The chamber voted 67-33 to end debate on the budget resolution, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats in the affirmative.
Among that 12 were Senate Armed Services Committee members Roy Blunt of Missouri, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and McCain. Former longtime committee member Susan Collins of Maine also joined them.