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McCain Eager to Finish Defense Bill, but Amendment Landmines Remain

McCain hopes to complete work on the defense bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The defense policy bill could get off the Senate floor this week the easy way — or the hard way.  

Senators will enter their third partial week of floor debate on the National Defense Authorization Act when they return Monday, with a key vote to limit debate on the measure occurring Tuesday morning unless there is an agreement to change the schedule.  

Among the significant amendments pending are a proposal by Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., to bar inverted corporations from being able to get Pentagon contracts and a bipartisan proposal led by Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Intelligence ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to reassert a prohibition on the use of torture techniques in interrogations.  

In addition, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is seeking a vote again this year on the handling of sexual assault within the military justice system, reprising a debate from previous defense policy bills.  

That's separate from other big-ticket debates like those over a prohibition on the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Syria and Iraq and a proposal from a coalition including Feinstein and GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to prohibit indefinite detention of Americans.  

"The Constitution does not allow President [Barack] Obama, or any President, to apprehend an American citizen, arrested on U.S. soil, and detain these citizens indefinitely without a trial," Cruz said in a statement about the amendment. "That's why I have consistently supported measures to prohibit indefinite detention in the NDAA. The Due Process Guarantee amendment will prohibit the President's ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process."  

As for the bill itself, after some initial progress, an amendment stalemate took hold over an effort by Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to add a cybersecurity bill that the Intelligence panel had backed on a 14-1 vote.  

After a coalition of Democrats and a few civil liberties-minded Republicans voted to break a filibuster of the amendment, decrying the amendment process, McCain appeared hopeful that the withdrawal of the cybersecurity amendment would help the defense bill on its path to passage this week.  

Supporters of the expedited approach — which was thwarted with a 56-40 vote, just short of the total needed to limit debate — had argued that the compressed Senate calendar made it important to take up cybersecurity as part of the defense measure.  

"How many breaches do we have to hear about, whether it's the private sector or whether it's the government sector, before this Congress and Senate will stand up and say we have the capability of preventing some of these things from happening, but we need the legislative authority to do it?" Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., asked during the debate. "To delay ... puts millions of Americans at risk, whether they work for the government or private industry."  

But Democrats balked at McConnell calling up the cybersecurity legislation as an amendment.  

"Cybersecurity is a serious issue that deserves thoughtful consideration, debate and amendment votes," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "If Senator McConnell brought cybersecurity legislation to the floor under regular order it would likely pass quickly. On critical issues like cybersecurity, Senator McConnell needs to decide whether he wants to show leadership or simply engage in what’s becoming an endless series of cynical ploys and finger-pointing games."  

Attaching major legislation to the defense bill is nothing particularly unusual, and indeed it might still happen on the Senate floor this year. Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., have filed a State Department authorization bill that was reported out of the committee on June 9 as an amendment, seeking to accomplish something that Congress hasn't accomplished in more than a decade.  

"This effort takes a modest but important step toward reestablishing oversight of the State Department through an annual authorization, which hasn’t been enacted into law since 2002," Corker said in a statement. "In addition to prioritizing security upgrades for U.S. personnel at high threat posts, the legislation lays the groundwork to streamline State Department operations and make them more effective."