WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman said his team is readying a “skeleton” version of the 2020 defense policy bill to ensure troops are paid in the event he and his House counterpart can’t resolve their partisan differences.
After negotiations between the House and Senate were pushed back a week, potentially thwarting plans for speedy passage of the massive 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he has a backup plan if talks run aground before the end of the year.
“There’s a fear by some people that it might not work out, so we’d be looking at what some people refer to as a the ‘skeleton bill,’ ” Inhofe said, calling the move “a last resort.”
There’s no set rules for what would go into a bare bones NDAA, but sources knowledgeable with the process agree it would at least have to include special payments and bonuses for service members, which Inhofe confirmed. “We could pass a bill that only had the necessary things in it, that it pays the kids. There’s a list of things that have to be done,” Inhofe said.
Leaders in the House and Senate Armed Services committees planned to dive into the conference process for reconciling the massive bills, which diverge on a number of key issues, reflecting the partisan divide between the chambers. But a few technical issues bumped those plans into this week — “a kind of a shock treatment,” Inhofe said.
This year’s House-passed bill contained limits on the president’s power to wage war on Iran, restrictions on the nuclear arsenal, limits on military activities along the southern border and a ban on new detainees at Guantanamo Bay — issues important to House Democrats that will likely complicate passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We just want to make sure we have a bill,” Inhofe said. “The House has a bill; it’s a nonstarter. They know that. We know that. It’ll never get anywhere in the Senate, and it would of course get vetoed [by the president].”
The NDAA, which authorizes defense spending, holds a 58-year streak of successful passage into law.
There was a meeting Wednesday of the “big four” leaders of the Armed Services committees — Inhofe; SASC ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I.; House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.; and HASC ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Inhofe was not the only one with a backup plan.
“Of course you think of a backup to the backup to the backup,” Thornberry said. “Obviously there are authorities that have to be enacted this year, some special pays and other things. I think everybody’s conscious of that, and hopefully it won’t come to that.”
For Reed, the bill contains a host of other authorizations that are necessary, beyond pay alone.
“It’s also important to make sure they have the platforms, support and training they need, which all requires an NDAA that’s substantial,” Reed said.
This wouldn’t be the first time a bare bones authorization bill was considered, said Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director and retired Marine Corps three-star general. Still, the committees always have a way of working it out, even when Congress is divided.
“They always figure out a way to get the bill done; I don’t tend to panic, especially since many of these issues are perennial,” Punaro said. “We dealt with some big issues with nuclear weapons in the 1980s and 1990s.”
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.