Regular order means senators have to vote on amendments, and those votes can be rather difficult. And there are no more serious votes than those on war — ones the Senate has been ducking for years.
Take, for instance, a National Defense Authorization Act amendment filed by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq. Or the proposal from Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland to impose a three-year sunset on the earlier broad authorization enacted after the 9/11 attacks.
President Barack Obama sent up a draft use of force authorization against the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS, in February that would roll back the Iraq AUMF and leave unchecked the original 2001 law, but Congress has not acted . In the meantime, Obama has cited the 2001 law as authorization to wage war on ISIS.
“The 2001 AUMF was never intended to authorize an unending, 13-plus year war or be used by presidents as a blank check to keep our nation in a state of perpetual conflict," Cardin said in a statement to Roll Call Friday. "This chapter must be closed and a three-year sunset of the 2001 AUMF guarantees that Congress can review, evaluate, and modernize this Authorization."
Other familiar debates are likely to be reprised, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., renewing her call to remove military sexual-assault prosecutions from the chain of command, and Western lawmakers seeking to address management of the greater sage-grouse.
Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., has prepared an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.
But all that may be for naught. Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., is proposing to wall off the $38 billion in funding provided through the Overseas Contingency Operations war funding account until there's a budget deal.
Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is backing Reed.
"They need base budget authority so they can plan, so they can look to the future, and so they can make decisions on an ongoing basis that are necessary to commit to programs, plans, and projects that will defend this country," King said on the Senate floor. "... By ignoring the needs of the rest of the federal government, by ignoring the needs of other parts of the national security apparatus, we are not serving the public we were sent here to look after."
But when Reed's amendment dies a predictable death, there will be a day of reckoning. The choice for Democrats will be whether to unite to block the authorization bill or to keep their powder dry until the appropriations process gets underway.
Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized Reed's forthcoming amendment, saying it would "have the effect of reducing the funding and authorization rather dramatically and cancel many vitally needed programs, equipment and training for the men and women who are serving in the military."
But McCain added it would be "intellectual sophistry" to conflate authorizations and appropriations. That bill's expected on the floor later in June, and faces a near certain filibuster.
"Once [the Reed amendment] is defeated, I hope and pray we will then move forward with the amendment process, which has been absent for the last two years — totally absent for the last two years — and not, for the first time in 53 years, not pass [the] Defense authorization bill through the Congress of the United States," McCain said.
Aside from the top-line issue, Republicans and Democrats were already sparring over amendments before senators departed for what's effectively a four-day weekend — there are no roll call votes until Tuesday.
McCain touted that the GOP-led Senate had already doubled the number of amendments considered to this year's bill as opposed to the last two when Harry Reid was in charge.
But a Reid spokesman was quick to point out Republicans blocked votes on amendments to those bills.
Senators have already filed hundreds of amendments and McCain has said that ultimately 200 amendments may be considered. Following the traditional process, McCain and Reed have been working to clear noncontroversial proposals. That's separate from the slew of amendments that could be vehicles for the most contentious debates of the year.
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