WASHINGTON — The Senate is scheduled to vote on the annual defense authorization bill next week amid parliamentary fights that stalled debate on most amendments. A vote to advance the bill passed Friday, 68-23.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after the vote lauded the $602 billion authorization bill's support for national security. He decried President Barack Obama's annual threats to veto it over provisions limiting the closure of the Guantanamo military detainment facility in Cuba, saying of the president: "It's time to quit that."
"It will help prepare our country for threats of today and the challenges of tomorrow, and it will better enable the next commander-in-chief — regardless of party — to deal with them as well," McConnell said. "That's critical given that the next president is about to inherit an array of troubling threats and instability in the Middle East."
With more than 500 amendments still left for consideration, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a floor speech ahead of the vote that the bill was "not a good bill," and that he was against closing debate with so many amendments pending, particularly those aimed at fighting military sexual assault and providing US visas to Afghan interpreters for US troops.
Senate leaders were hopeful the bill would advance. Votes are expected for early next week, with plans to take up defense appropriations bills in the House and Senate later in the week and an eye toward finalizing the military's budget some time later in the year.
On Thursday, Senate Democrats sought $18 billion in authorization for programs outside the Pentagon, a match for Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain's amendment to add $18 billion in authorization for added troops, jets, ships and tanks left out of Obama's Pentagon budget request. When Republicans voted down the nondefense authorization, Democrats responded in kind, buoyed by 11 Republicans who voted against the defense plus-up.
Lead Senate Democrats threatened to upend the chamber's appropriations process if McCain's amendment passed on its own.
But the fight may not be over. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Friday he would press for additional funding when the Senate debates the defense appropriations bill. Graham argued added funding is needed because statutory budget caps have created a military readiness and equipment crisis, which he termed "a hurricane in a tornado, level five, for the Department of Defense."
"I am going to vote, I am going to break the back of this movement, I am going to make it my No. 1 reason to live," Graham said. "There are a lot of my friends in the 11, I am going to go to them personally and say, 'Will you please reconsider?' "
Four of the Republican "no" votes on McCain's amendment were from appropriators: Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, of Mississippi; Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee; Mark Kirk, of Illinois; and James Lankford, of Oklahoma. The rest were Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, of Tennessee; Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, of Wyoming; Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, of Iowa; Jeff Flake, of Arizona; Dean Heller, of Nevada; Mike Lee, of Utah; and Rand Paul, of Kentucky.
While Republicans often lean toward fiscal conservatism, many make exceptions when it comes to the defense of the nation. Yet Corker, eluding to the spiraling national debt, said unfettered appetites for defense spending actually "erode" national security.
"The greatest threat to our nation is our fiscal crisis," Corker said. "A saner approach is for us is to actually care about the fiscal future of the nation. From [former Vice Joint Chief's Chairman Adm. Mike] Mullen on down, every military leader will tell us our greatest issue is the fiscal issue. Yet over military and veterans spending, we don't want to show the same discipline our men and women have shown."
The Budget Control Act of 2011 set limits on discretionary spending, with separate pools for defense and nondefense spending, and sequestration budget cuts that execute automatically if the caps are exceeded. The amendment introduced by Arizona Republican McCain, R-Ariz., would have added to the emergency overseas contingency operations (OCO) account, which is exempt from budget caps — though some lawmakers have decried the use of OCO for non-emergency programs, to skirt the caps.
"I just think we can't continue to bust the caps," Flake said. "There is a general concern about OCO, and I've been so negative in terms of what we've done with OCO, and I know that was part of it. Anything that busts the caps — don't want to go there."
Leo Shane III contributed to this report.