Skip to content

Warner Won’t Retreat in Battle Over Defense Bill

The 109th Congress could be on the cusp of a historic moment unmatched in the past half century.

With just six weeks left until Thanksgiving — the House and Senate’s very tentative and probably unrealistic target for adjournment — this Congress could end up with the dubious distinction of rendering the Defense Department authorization measure obsolete, placing the last of the “must-pass” authorization bills in with so many other authorization bills from once-powerful committees that now languish on the Senate calendar with no hope of ever seeing an up-or-down vote, much less the president’s desk.[IMGCAP(1)]

While the obituary on the Defense authorization bill can’t and shouldn’t be written just yet, the limited time left in this year’s session, coupled with partisan stalemates over the bill, threaten to prevent the Senate from not only reconciling its measure with a similar House-passed bill, but also actually passing its own bill.

Still, Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) has vowed to do “whatever it takes” to pass the bill this year, despite a crippling setback last week in which the Senate narrowly rejected adding the Defense authorization bill to the all-important Defense appropriations bill. (For the record, authorization bills set policy goals and direct where monies are supposed to go, while appropriations bills actually distribute the money. However, in the absence of an authorization, appropriations measures often take on dual responsibilities.)

Warner described himself as “a bit bloodied, but not bowed” after last week’s narrow 49-50 defeat and said the close vote sent a strong message to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that a large bipartisan coalition wants to see the Defense bill become law.

“My failure had a degree of credibility to it,” Warner noted.

Indeed, after the vote, Warner said Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised that “as soon as we come back [from the Columbus Day recess], we’re going to work it out and get it up this session.”

Warner said he has already dealt with most of the hundreds of amendments that were pending to the bill and that many of those amendments will simply be adopted by unanimous consent.

But as it stands now, Frist and Reid are pointing the finger at each other for the Senate’s inability to pass the measure. And as Reid readily admits, a political hangover from Hurricane Katrina is now holding up the process.

Given the impasse, Warner acknowledged that he “can’t guarantee” that an agreement will be reached, but still vowed to make himself a force to be reckoned with.

Frist has repeatedly complained that Reid refuses to agree to a request to limit each party to 12 relevant amendments that could only be debated for about an hour. Under that scenario, the Senate could finish the bill in two to three days.

The problem for Reid is limiting himself to “relevant” amendments, given that Democrats want to vote on an amendment to create a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the federal government’s bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Reid, of course, contends he’s not asking for anything out of bounds, given that non-germane amendments are routinely included on authorization bills.

But Reid also faults Frist for failing to complete the bill when it was originally brought to the Senate floor in July. Indeed, the Senate only considered a handful of non-controversial amendments before sidelining the Defense bill for a measure to protect gun manufacturers from some lawsuits.

At the time, Senate Republicans were wary of having the Defense authorization debate because of potential amendments that would require new interrogation methods of terrorism detainees and that would interfere with the controversial work of Base Realignment and Closure Commission, known as BRAC.

Frist finally allowed a vote on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) detainee amendment last week, and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has decided to postpone action on his BRAC amendment until the Senate begins work on authorizing the next round of base closings. So that just leaves the Hurricane Katrina issue as the main sticking point.

Warner and other Armed Services Committee members are no doubt mindful that skipping one Defense authorization bill — particularly in a time of war — could end up sidelining the Senate Armed Services Committee and reduce its current weighty influence.

“This is a symptom that the appropriations process has basically consumed the authorizing process,” McCain complained. “You don’t see any authorizations coming out of any other committee in Congress.”

When asked how the failure to pass the Defense authorization bill would affect the Armed Services Committee, Warner refused to even entertain the notion.

“The word ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never, never, never give in.’”

A case in point is the declining influence of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after it began failing to secure annual passage of a State Department authorization bill. That’s not to say that they never get their way. In 2001 and 2002, under then-Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the panel pushed a bill through the Senate and to the president’s desk. The panel’s record was also spotty during the 1990s. Like Foreign Relations, Armed Services really only has one legislative function: to pass an authorization bill.

Luckily for Warner, the Defense authorization includes a 3.1 percent pay increase for military personnel and extends the enhanced death gratuity provided to families of fallen soldiers, provisions that Congress can ill afford, politically at least, to let fall by the wayside.

Indeed, it appears that those provisions and others involving the welfare of military families and soldiers serving stateside or in Iraq and Afghanistan might be just the grease that gets the Republican and Democratic leaders to find that elusive common ground.

Warner warned that “a failure [to pass the bill this year] is against a background of a nation at war … with tremendous consequences for our men and women in uniform.”