In a gambit to avoid the most controversial pitfalls that could end a 51-year streak of annual passage, the top defense lawmakers from the House and Senate announced a deal on a $632.8 billion National Defense Authorization Act on Monday, even before the Senate had passed its version of the Pentagon policy bill.
“The bill that we have come up with is not a Democratic bill or a Republican bill,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Monday on the Senate floor. “It is a bipartisan defense bill.”
At a news conference with the top defense authorizers in Congress late Monday afternoon, House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said that many had speculated that lawmakers would only be able to pass a “slimmed down” version of the defense authorization bill — but he said they proved the skeptics wrong.
McKeon noted — as Roll Call reported — that the authorizers met behind closed doors last week to work through a number of amendments that would have been considered on the Senate floor. In the end, 79 of the 87 Senate amendments discussed were included in the negotiated version of the bill, McKeon said.
“We worked hard to blend the bill,” Levin said, noting that it was the only way to get the bill passed this year.
The plan laid out by the defense authorizers is for the House to pass the compromise bill this week and send it over to the Senate for speedy passage next week, possibly with a voice vote or under a unanimous consent agreement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor Monday that he hoped to get a message from the House on the NDAA “soon.”
“And I hope we can dispose of this very quickly,” Reid said.
Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, told CQ Roll Call on Monday evening that “the speaker supports Chairman McKeon and his work on this important bill.”
But the defense authorization measure contains plenty of contentious policies that could still trip it up.
The bill would continue a prohibition on the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, but, as the Senate Armed Services Committee proposed, it would ease certification standards to allow detainees to be transferred to other nations.
The bill also would leave out the controversial sexual-assault amendment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. It would, however, include more than 30 other provisions related to sexual assault that were included in earlier versions of the House and Senate bills.
For now, that seemed to satisfy Gillibrand. Her office told CQ Roll Call on Monday that if she didn’t get a vote through the NDAA debate, it was still “confident” it would get a vote in some way. Her office noted that Gillibrand had filed her amendment — which would separate military sexual-assault cases from the chain of command — as a bill under special rules of the Senate that allow the bill to go straight to the floor.
“Regardless of what happens, the senator will not go away,” Bethany Lesser, Gillibrand’s communications director, told CQ Roll Call. “She will keep fighting to protect our brave men and women in uniform and to strengthen our military.”
Finishing the bill this year would give servicemembers a 1 percent raise on time and avoid a lapse in combat pay. Additionally, finishing this year would prevent a lapse in multiyear procurement deals such as those for the Navy E-2D airborne warning aircraft or the Air Force C-13J tactical transport. Failure to authorize those two multiyear deals could cost the government another $1 billion.
Also, without authorization, construction on the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, the military’s most expensive piece of machinery ever, would halt because of a failure to increase cost caps. That, too, could cost $1 billion.
The brinkmanship exhibited with the NDAA had some lawmakers up in arms Monday. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was highly critical of Reid on the Senate floor, saying he was “deeply disappointed” that Reid waited so long to advance the defense bill.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, sent identical letters to Boehner and Reid urging them to complete the NDAA this year.
He called the authorities contained in the NDAA “critical to the Nation’s defense” and warned that delaying the bill further would add more uncertainty to the force and further complicate the duty of commanders.
“I also fear that delay may put the entire Bill at risk, protracting this uncertainty and impacting our global influence,” he wrote.
Indeed, Levin said, waiting until January could derail the defense bill, as Congress deals with “the crushing business of [continuing resolutions] in January.”
“This is the only path to a bill,” Levin said. “We’ve not missed in 52 years. The reason we don’t miss is our troops and their families and the national security of this country. That’s why we have not failed, and we cannot fail this year.
“Again, it is not the preferred course,” Levin said. “It just happens to be the only course.”
Frank Oliveri contributed to this report.