Good Signs: US President Barack Obama meets with congressional leaders on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said passing the defense authorization bill when the Senate returns after August is 'extremely important.' (Chip Somodevilla/ / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — US lawmakers spent the days before a five-week legislative break trading barbs and moving bills with little chance of becoming law. But just before they departed, the US defense sector received a glimmer of hope.
There was a new feeling on the Senate side of the Capitol late last week that the chamber would begin work on the Senate Armed Services Committee-passed 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in September. The new view replaced almost unanimous uncertainty about whether Democrats and Republicans could agree to an amendments process under which the bill would be debated on the floor.
“The NDAA has been one of those places that we’ve been able to process and in detail,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said.
When asked about the possibility of the 2015 Pentagon policy bill passing after the August recess, he replied: “I would hope so.”
Corker’s optimism — shared by members of both parties — followed a week of intensified inter- and intra-party squabbling that threatened to derail any legislation following the August break.
House Republicans spent the week criticizing President Barack Obama, voting on July 30 to move forward with Speaker John Boehner’s plan to sue him. The lower chamber was even hit with a new round of GOP-vs.-GOP political maneuvering over a border security funding bill written by Republican leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., hit House Republicans for conducting “political theater” instead of passing legislation that could actually have a chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chamber’s top Republican, accused Obama of failing to lead on issues such as helping Israel defeat Hamas in that weeks-old war. And House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House GOP members have little moral standing.
With both 2015 defense bills awaiting action in the Senate, Washington’s four-year-old partisan deep freeze ominously intensified last week. The partisan shot-taking appeared to bode ill for the defense bills, especially because the freeze last year forced watered-down versions of both the Pentagon policy and appropriations bills to be enacted.
Pentagon and industry leaders said they prefer full-year bills that provide them greater certainty as they craft business and weapons program plans for next year.
The partisanship and inaction on passable legislation was so bad last week that lawmakers at one point even opted against passing anything to help Israel ensure it has ample stockpiles of interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome system.
Israeli officials say Iron Dome has saved countless lives by swatting away hundreds of Hamas rockets fired from Gaza in recent weeks. A House vote on bubbled back up as a possibility late on Aug. 1.
Yet, just as a cantankerous final week of July seemed to set the tone for a September of continued inaction on the defense bills, Reid altered the script.
The Nevada Democrat said he intends to have a Senate Armed Services Committee-passed 2015 NDAA on the floor in September. He called completing an NDAA during September “extremely important.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News that he believes the Pentagon authorization bill can be approved when the chamber gets back.
“We’ve already got 94 amendments, and it looks like the kind that can be approved,” Inhofe said. “It’s good news.”
Reid pleaded with his colleagues to be prepared to work Fridays and weekends throughout September in order to complete the defense policy bill and a list of other measures.
“We have not had a productive Congress,” he said, adding September could be different if members of both parties set aside years-long bitterness and squabbling.
The Democratic leader said he met on July 30 with his committee chairs, who advocated for working Fridays and weekends in September.
Meantime, there are increasing signs that the Senate will never vote on an Appropriations Committee-approved 2015 Pentagon spending bill.
Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and full committee Ranking Member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., are doubtful that measure — like most other spending bills — has a chance.
Lawmakers and aides said what’s most likely in September is a continuing resolution to keep the entire federal government operating through mid-November.
Once Congress returns around that time after the midterm elections, members expect an omnibus spending bill to be approved. That massive government-funding measure could include a pre-conferenced 2015 defense appropriations bill, sources said. ■