The Senate's $768 billion defense policy bill is on hold until after Thanksgiving after efforts to vote on an array of amendments broke down late Thursday evening under objections from several Republicans.
The roadblock is just the latest delay for the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, which had already languished for months without action despite complaints from both Democrats and Republicans. The impasse dashes the aims of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to finish work on the legislation before the holiday.
Pushing back votes on the defense bill further narrows the window for leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees to iron out a compromise and send it to President Joe Biden's desk before the end of the year.
"Democrats have been working in good faith for several days, actually for several months really, to pass this defense legislation," Schumer lamented on the floor late Thursday. "Members on both sides want to get this done, so these delays are unfortunate. There is no good reason to keep delaying. We should move the process forward."
After days of wrangling over what amendments would receive votes or be included in a bipartisan manager's package, Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) sought to secure votes Thursday evening on 19 amendments from Democrats and Republicans.
But seven Republicans took turns blocking votes because their amendments weren't included — some with little connection to defense policy.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (D-Alaska) sought a vote on his effort to block Pentagon enforcement of Biden's vaccine mandate on defense contractors. Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) want a vote on their measure to impose sanctions on the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) both want to force votes on separate immigration and border wall measures. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) demanded a vote on his measure to bar the import of goods made by forced labor of China's Muslim Uyghur minority.
Reed, who conceded that some of those debates are "meritorious," criticized the objecting senators for thwarting the broader vote series and progress on the military policy bill.
"We will send a very powerful message to the men and women in the armed forces that we don't have your back" if the bill doesn't passed, Reed warned. "We're too busy squabbling amongst ourselves about issues at the border and Nord Stream and other issues."
Democratic and Republican leaders will need to work out the dispute after the Thanksgiving recess. Any one senator can object to votes or speeding up the process on the floor, so it's possible no senators may get votes on their amendments if the impasse isn't resolved.
The defense bill inched forward during a quiet Friday session. The Senate quickly approved a procedural motion to finally begin debate on the bill.
Schumer is also expected to make a motion to cut off debate on Friday, setting up final votes after Thanksgiving with or without an agreement on amendments.
A wide array of policy proposals were scuttled by the dust-up, including amendments to slash the defense budget, rein in presidential war powers and defang parts of the coronavirus vaccine mandate.
The now-shelved list of 19 amendments included a proposal from Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to reverse the $25 billion increase to Biden's defense budget request that was adopted by the Armed Services Committee this summer.
A bipartisan push to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization, offered by Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Todd Young of Indiana, is also on hold. The effort is also a top priority for Schumer, who pledged to hold a vote to rein in decades-old war powers laws this year.
Senate leaders were also primed to grant Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) a vote on his amendment to remove a provision in the defense bill that would require women to register for a military draft. The expansion was included in the House-passed defense bill and would almost certainly become law if it survives the Senate.
The dispute also sunk a vote on an amendment from Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) that would require that troops booted from the ranks for refusing the coronavirus vaccine receive honorable discharges.
The setback caps off a week of frustration for backers of the legislation. Republicans and Democrats clashed over Schumer's push to fold U.S.-China competitiveness legislation into the defense bill. Procedural votes were delayed amid the dispute, before Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to negotiate the China legislation separately.
Now time is running short for the House and Senate to hammer out a compromise version of the defense bill, which has become law every year for six decades.
For members of both parties, it's proof positive that Schumer — who has largely avoided putting large bills on the floor while the Senate waited on the House to pass Biden's and Democrats' marquee $1.75 trillion social spending package — should have allowed the defense debate far earlier.
House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has sharply criticized Schumer for not acting sooner. Lawmakers are now weighing alternative methods to ensure the bill becomes law if they're short on time.
The top Senate Armed Services Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, lamented the impasse Thursday night, but ultimately blamed Schumer for not acting sooner on the defense bill.
"I was disappointed … that we had to waste a lot of time," Inhofe said of the blockade.
"The Democrat leader didn't allow this to come up where we could do this. We didn't have a choice," Inhofe said. "As Republicans, we didn't have a choice, and we are united in wanting to get started earlier. As a result of that, a lot of Democrats and Republican have lost their opportunity to get heard and to have amendments considered."
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