By Emelie Rutherford
The chances of the Senate taking up the fiscal year 2009 defense authorization bill before Congress’ August recess appear to be dimming, even though leading defense authorizers continue to seek support for a quick vote with restricted debate.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman (SASC) Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and committee second-ranking Republican Sen. John Warner (Va.) said yesterday they are sticking with their weeks-long push to garner support for a unanimous consent (UC) agreement that would restrict Senate floor debate on the bill, in order to ensure floor time during this busy legislative period.
Levin portrayed the UC agreement’s fate as contingent on Republicans’ support.
"Sen. Warner’s been working with his leadership for a couple weeks now," Levin said. Asked the chances of the UC agreement succeeding, Levin said: "Only his leaders would know."
Once such an agreement is reached, the bill could hit the Senate floor in a week, Levin estimates. Yet time is running out, because the Senate is set to start a five-week recess Aug. 1, followed by a three-week session before Congress adjourns Sept. 26 for the year.
Warner said yesterday he knows "of no one at this point in time objecting to us going forward" with the bill itself, and "it’s just a question of whether or not the leaders can schedule it before we do the August recess."
Asked if he thinks his Republican colleagues will agree to the UC agreement, Warner said, "I can’t answer that."
Yet, he added, "I’m not giving up on it. Give me a little more time."
Acknowledging less than two weeks remain before recess, Warner said "that’s the sort of backstop that you need, is a recess to get this sort of bill through."
Still, he said limiting debate makes sense.
"That sort of bill should go the floor with some conditions like the amendments have to be relevant to the underlying bill, the jurisdiction of the committee," Warner said. "Practically speaking…this bill, if it were left wide-open for free amendments, we’d never be able to get it done."
Levin has proposed a UC agreement that would limit amendments to issues directly related to the bill, the House version of the legislation, or the SASC. Such an agreement would mean he could not offer hate-crimes related language he has sought in the past, aides said.
Senate Republicans appear uneasy with such an agreement.
"This idea of hearing that we can only offer one amendment or something, they’re going to limit time, without regard to the processes of the past, is not going to go down," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the lead Republican on his chamber’s defense appropriations panel. "This is not a dictatorship."
Stevens said yesterday he does not know if he will personally object to Levin’s proposed UC agreement, but said some of his colleagues are unhappy with attempts to limit input on legislation.
"I just don’t see changing the traditions of the Senate to meet the urgency of any particular moment," he said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a SASC member, said yesterday he supports the bill the committee marked up April 30, but questioned the fate of the UC agreement.
"I think asking people to just give up an important bill like defense and just run it through without much debate, I can see particularly non-committee members might have a problem," he said. "And I don’t know if Sen. Levin is able to deliver the Democratic side either…There could be bipartisan objections on it from both sides of the aisle."
Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said yesterday he hasn’t talked to the Democratic caucus about the UC agreement idea, and that he has no opinion on it yet.
He predicted the defense authorization bill will not hit the Senate floor before the August recess without such an agreement restricting amendments. He noted other pressing legislation that first has to be debated.
The House passed its version of the defense authorization bill on May 22. Significant differences remain between the two bills, including the SASC’s acceptance and House’s rejection of the Navy’s request for funding to buy one DDG-1000 destroyer in FY ’09.