WASHINGTON ― The Senate could consider the annual defense authorization bill as soon as Thursday after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., abandoned a controversial push to merge it with sweeping China-focused legislation.
The Senate late Wednesday voted 84-15 to advance debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy and budget guidelines for the military. From there, Democrats are looking to cut a deal with Republicans to vote Thursday or for quick passage after the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving recess.
Schumer’s gambit to unilaterally merge the sweeping $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA, with the $740 billion NDAA created a deadlock with Republicans and yet another delay for the NDAA. Still, Schumer ultimately won a breakthrough on USICA, a key priority for him that had been stalled in the House since the Senate passed it in March.
Late Wednesday, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced they had a deal to enter formal talks to reconcile USICA with separate House legislation. They said in a joint statement an eventual compromise bill will “bolster American manufacturing, fix our supply chains, and invest in the next generation of cutting-edge technology research.”
Senate Emerging Threats Subcommittee Chairman Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., hailed USICA’s inclusion of $52 billion for microchip manufacturing as a win for national security and a step toward addressing the county’s microchip shortage. Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, however, has criticized the bill as “corporate welfare.”
Amid the USICA drama, the Senate spent Wednesday in bipartisan talks to add noncontroversial amendments to its NDAA before it’s introduced. Technically, the bill will be offered as a “substitute amendment” to the House-passed NDAA, with the Senate Armed Services Committee-passed NDAA as its backbone.
It’s unclear how many of the hundreds of proposed amendments will see votes. Schumer has said he will seek a vote to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization, a step toward Congress reclaiming its constitutional war-making powers from the presidency. Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a lead sponsor, said the bipartisan proposal has more than 60 votes and should be adopted.
The NDAA delays have added pressure on congressional leaders charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions into a final bill. Ahead of that process, the bill still faces a tight turnaround before the Senate’s holiday recess starts Saturday.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he has been working informally with his Senate counterparts to reconcile the House and Senate defense bills. Smith has criticized Schumer for not moving the bill sooner and didn’t relish the most recent holdup.
“I’ve told folks that if you want to play a drinking game with me for the next month … drink every time I say, ‘That’s why we should’ve done this sooner,’” Smith said. “And you can start right now. We should’ve done this sooner.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.