The Senate adjourned for the Thanksgiving holiday without making any significant progress on the defense authorization bill, leaving just one week next month for the Senate to pass a bill, confer with the House and then pass the compromise bill out of both chambers.
The defense bill got caught up in a partisan argument on Wednesday over how many amendments would be allowed, and then derailed on Thursday after Senate Democrats voted for a rules change that would allow most judges and cabinet-level nominees to be approved by a simple majority rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes.
After the series of arguments, the Senate recessed having only voted on competing amendments regarding prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay on Tuesday–two amendments to reform how the military prosecutes sexual assault cases were debated Wednesday but never voted on, and more than 400 other amendments were left untouched.
The Senate and House will only be in session together for one more week in 2013, and Senate Armed Services Committee leadership had said the bill needed to pass the full Senate before Thanksgiving to allow that entire week for the conference committee to do its work.
“Given the importance of this bill to our troops, their families, and our national security, I’m nowhere close to giving up on completing the defense authorization bill, even though we will only have days, not weeks, to complete it,” SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said yesterday afternoon after a Senate vote to end debate on the defense bill failed. He added that he had spoken to SASC ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) “and I know they are equally determined.”
McKeon released a statement yesterday afternoon expressing his frustration, saying “For fifty-one years Republicans and Democrats have come together to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which provides our men and women in uniform and their families with the resources they need to face a dangerous and uncertain world. Time is running short to reach an agreement this year, but it has not yet run out. There are still pathways to passage for this vital bill. We urge the Senate to resume NDAA consideration as soon as they return from their Thanksgiving recess. Our colleagues in the Senate should remember their obligation to our troops and continue to work towards final passage."
If the Senate could get an immediate vote when it returns to Washington, work in the conference committee could move quickly. HASC strategic forces subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in a Nov. 6 interview that HASC and SASC staffs had been working closely in recent weeks to “try to narrow as much as possible before we get to conference areas we think we might have conflict or concern…Obviously we’ve got some fundamental differences and concerns that have to do with sequestration and the lack of money. But nothing in particular that I see being a real flash point or problem.”
But actually getting to the conference committee will be the hard part. After adjourning, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) declined to speculate on the conference committee’s chance of succeeding in the one remaining week, saying lawmakers needed to focus on getting the Senate to vote on its bill in the first place.