The Senate majority leader said yesterday the chamber will start debating the long-delayed defense authorization bill before Thanksgiving, as the Pentagon indicated it would not try to quash the legislation over detainee language.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) marked up the fiscal year 2012 Pentagon policy bill for a second time on Tuesday. The panel unanimously changed the legislation it previously approved in June by cutting $21 billion–from weapons including upgraded Humvees and F/A-18E/F Hornets–and modifying military-detainee provisions objected to by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Yet while SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said they hoped the administration would be amenable to new detainee language, the bill still faced opposition yesterday.

Leaders of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees do not approve of the revised language, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cited concerns in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday.

“The (Defense) Department and the secretary are concerned about maintaining maximum flexibility when it comes to where a detainee ends up in a judicial process,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told Pentagon reporters yesterday.

Little and fellow spokesman Capt. John Kirby portrayed the items the Pentagon wants changed as issues that can be worked out in talks with lawmakers.

“(Panetta) very much looks forward to continuing to work with the Congress and the committee as they get close to (a) conference (committee with the House) and to potential passage here,” Kirby said. He added Panetta “has not, to our knowledge, recommended to veto this” and “wants to work with (lawmakers) as they move forward to this.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday he wanted to start working on the defense authorization bill, saying debate on it could continue into the planned Thanksgiving recess next week.

“If we have procedural obstacles on that very important legislation, it will mean we have to work the weekend into next week,” Reid said on the Senate floor. He added that while he knows senators want to go home for Thanksgiving, they have an “obligation” regarding the defense bill.

Next week is also important in Congress because Wednesday is the deadline for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose at least $1.2 trillion in longterm federal budget cuts. If the 12-member congressional panel does not craft a plan that Congress passes next month, under the Budget Control Act of 2011 a sequestration process will automatically cut the Pentagon’s budget by up to $600 billion, on top of $450 billion already taken from its longterm spending plans by the law.

The $21 billion in additional cuts the SASC made on Tuesday to the Pentagon’s FY ’12 budget request are meant to jibe with spending limits in the budget act, which President Barack Obama signed in August, six months after his administration submitted the budget proposal. Because the SASC previously approved a bill with $6 billion in cuts to the Pentagon’s $671 billion base and war budget wish list, the total reduction the committee is proposing is $27 billion.

The new $21 billion in cuts, approved by the SASC behind closed doors Tuesday, include $157 for Humvee recapitalization, $109 million for C-17s, $100 million for F/A-18E/F Hornets, $164 million for E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, and $171 million for Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (Defense Daily, Nov. 16).

The initial version of the bill the SASC approved June 16 includes provisions, not changed by Tuesday’s markup, meant to control the price of Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The language says the company must pay all costs that exceed the target amount for the lot 5 aircraft’s fixed-price contract. The legislation authorizes the Pentagon’s full funding request for buying 32 F-35s, while prohibiting the expenditure of monies on the F-35’s ill-fated alternate engine, made by General Electric [GE] and Rolls-Royce.

The defense authorization legislation sets policy and authorizes funding, which is formally determined by the defense appropriations bill, which Congress has not yet approved for FY ‘12. The fiscal year began Oct. 1.

The House approved its version of the FY ’12 defense authorization bill in May. After the Senate passes its version of the legislation, House and Senate negotiators will work out a compromised version that would need both chambers’ approval before it is sent to Obama.