Sen. John McCain suggested Thursday that the Senate's majority leader may have an ulterior motive in the standoff with Sen. David Vitter that's slowed the chamber to a crawl.
The Arizona Republican suggested that the dispute between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Vitter, R-La., over an amendment requiring disclosure about congressional staffers entering the new health care exchanges under Obamacare could be a gambit to help forestall the arrival of a floor debate on increased Iran sanctions.
"I think [Reid] is using it as a rationale because it's clear that they don't want a resolution concerning Iran and negotiations with Iran," McCain said.
Those advocating for new sanctions against the Iranian regime over its nuclear development have said the fiscal 2014 defense bill is the logical place for the debate, since it's the next moving vehicle on the Senate floor, and it usually has a relatively open amendment process.
President Barack Obama was clear Thursday in saying that the administration does not favor an additional sanctions push in the midst of diplomatic talks with Iran over the nuclear program.
"What I've said to members of Congress is that if, in fact, we're serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically ... if we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there's no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place," Obama told reporters at the White House. "Now, if it turns out they can't deliver, they can’t come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up. And we’ve got that option."
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan wants to avoid seeing the defense bill become a legislative Christmas tree this year, but whether the legislation can get through the Senate before the literal Capitol Christmas tree arrives on Nov. 25 is an open question. Levin echoed the views of other Democrats who weren't sure how long the Obamacare-related standoff would continue.
"Well, I don't know what Vitter's going to do," in terms of yielding back debate time, Levin said.
"There will be all kinds of amendments, I'm sure which could be cleared, hopefully. That was the way we used to do things around here," Levin said. "Then at the end a manager's package, I would hope that that would be the case."
Vitter has made repeated unanimous consent requests to set up votes on an amendment that would set a new public reporting requirement for congressional offices about which staff members have been designated as "official" employees. The "official" staff will lose access to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, instead obtaining insurance through the Obamacare exchange system.
"This is a charade and, at a minimum, I think the public should know how each office and each member is handling that situation," Vitter said Thursday when trying to set up a vote on his proposal and a Democratic alternative on a number of legislative vehicles, including the defense bill.
Reid criticized Vitter on the Senate floor Thursday morning, highlighting the fact that the Louisianan was the only senator with an objection to a compounding pharmacy safety bill.
"One senator has delayed action for more than a month on a bill to ensure the safety of custom medications mixed by pharmacies for patients with unique health needs," Reid said.
Asked about the prospect that Democratic senators could face GOP-favored amendments related to the implementation of the health care law as part of the defense authorization debate, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin directed reporters back to the Vitter matter.
"Listen, Vitter wants an amendment on everything," the Illinois Democrat said.