A broad and familiar coalition of Republicans and Democrats came together Thursday to pass an annual Pentagon policy bill, with House GOP leadership largely ducking some of the more contentious debates and amendments related to the National Defense Authorization Act.
As a veto threat loomed over the bill — the White House has threatened a veto on the defense authorization act for years and has yet to interrupt the 52-year streak of the president signing the measure into law — House lawmakers voted 325-98 to pass a bill authorizing more than $590 billion for defense activities in fiscal 2015.
While the House went late into the night Wednesday disposing of 169 amendments made in order for floor consideration, much of the debate on the bill focused on what the House wouldn’t be debating.
The most notable amendment excluded was a proposal from Rep. Jeff Denham to give certain undocumented immigrants legal status in exchange for enlisting in the military.
During last year's defense authorization, the Rules Committee made in order that proposal from the California Republican, but GOP leadership convinced Denham to withdraw his amendment on the floor.
This year, with immigration one of the touchiest issues in the House, leaders decided not to give Denham the choice; they killed the amendment in the Rules Committee before it could ever get a vote. Leaders also avoided controversial amendments addressing sexual assault. Not made in order were amendments from California Democrat Jackie Speier that would have given the chief prosecutor of each respective military branch the authority to prosecute sexual assault cases, as well as another Speier amendment that would have allowed sexual assault victims to sue the Defense Department for damages.
In addition to Speier's two sexual assault amendments, as well as Denham's immigration one, 136 other amendments were rejected by the Rules Committee. And Democrats on Wednesday were all too happy to bash Republican leaders for their refusal to allow votes on pressing issues.
Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told CQ Roll Call that the rule for the bill was "weak."
"It avoided, you know, the more difficult issues, and I think that's unfortunate," Smith said.
But it was, perhaps, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern who took the greatest umbrage to the rule. McGovern had an amendment that would have forced Congress to authorize the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan if they remained beyond 2014. But the Rules Committee, of which McGovern is a member, didn't give it a vote
In protest of that decision, McGovern made pesky motions to adjourn Wednesday, delaying floor action on the defense authorization bill well into the evening.
"It astounds me that members of Congress would want to hide behind, you know, the Rules Committee, blocking bringing this to the floor as a way to avoid a serious debate and a vote on this policy," McGovern said.
It wasn't just Democrats complaining, however.
North Carolina Republican Walter B. Jones, who co-sponsored McGovern's proposal, condemned Republican leadership for not allowing a vote on the Afghanistan amendment, calling it a "disappointment and a failure of this House of Representatives."
“We sit here and we allow all of these other spending issues involving our military, and much of it they deserve,” Jones said on the floor Wednesday. “Pay increases. Taking care of the families. Doing the good things for our military. But when it comes to sending our young men and women to give their life and limbs, we don't debate it. We just don't debate it.”
Jones was one of four Republicans to vote against the rule for the defense policy bill. He was joined by Paul Broun of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Steve Stockman of Texas. (Jones actually cast Broun’s vote himself, taking Broun’s voting card with him to the nearest electronic device as he registered his own disgust.)
While debate on the National Defense Authorization Act avoided a number of hard discussions and votes, the bill itself avoided a number of hard decisions.
Earlier this year, either to save money or to extend the lifespan of certain weapons platforms, the Pentagon proposed the retirement or deactivation of a number of older systems.
Case in point: the A-10, a ground-attack aircraft, and the U-2, a Cold War-era spy plane. Despite Pentagon wishes, the bill would block the Defense Department from retiring either aircraft.
The Pentagon also wanted to bring in 14 Navy ships for extended maintenance — a tactic used to reduce current costs and lengthen the lifespan of a ship.
The bill would block that, too.
Also blocked is another round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. A round of BRAC this year is about as popular among lawmakers as Congress is among voters. But the Pentagon wants a BRAC Commission in 2017. They say the amount of infrastructure they're maintaining is 25 percent more than they need.
What debate the House did have largely focused on the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
It was more than five years ago that President Barack Obama pledged to close Guantánamo, and as with previous defense authorizations, the fiscal 2015 bill would bar the transfer of those detainees to the United States for imprisonment.
The House rebuffed an amendment, 177-247, that would have established framework for the closure of the facility by the end of 2016.
Smith, the sponsor of the amendment, echoed his familiar arguments that the facility is needlessly expensive — Smith says it costs $2.7 million per inmate per year at Guantánamo — and that terrorists are currently held in U.S. prisons already.
"We have the ability in the United States of America to hold dangerous people," Smith said. "I will submit to you that if we didn't have that ability, we would be in a whole lot of trouble regardless of the people at Guantánamo Bay."
Republicans countered that the facility is a solid alternative to the politically unpopular act of housing detainees domestically and an asset to U.S. national security.
"If al-Qaida's on the run, I think it's toward us," said Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup.
Lawmakers also rejected 191-233 an amendment from California Democrat Adam B. Schiff to sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.
Schiff’s amendment would repeal the authorization — the central legal justification for military activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere — one year after the bill’s enactment. Schiff, a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued the law was overly broad and outdated and that his amendment would provide a timeline for both the president and Congress to consider a new strategy.
"Without a sunset, I am convinced that a year from now we will be exactly where we are today — continuing to rely on an increasingly legally unreliable AUMF," Schiff said.
The bill does incorporate a Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., amendment, adopted by voice vote in an en bloc package, that would require the president to report to Congress on the identity and location of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It also would require a description of all actions taken to kill or capture those individuals.
Overall, the bill would authorize — though not appropriate — roughly $592 billion, with more than $495 billion for the Pentagon base budget, more than $79 billion earmarked for Overseas Contingency Operations (namely the war in Afghanistan), and more than $17 billion for nuclear weapons activities.
Correction: An earlier form of this article listed Duncan Hunter as a Democrat. He is a Republican.
Connor O'Brien contributed to this report.