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Senate Leaders Duel Over Defense Authorization

In the midst of a flurry of Senate floor activity in the wee hours of Saturday morning, a tense exchange about taking up the annual defense authorization bill startled observers in the galleries.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rose to propose a deal to take up the measure during the lame-duck session, which drew a quick objection and sharp rebuke from an agitated Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Reid brought the proposal to the floor shortly before 2 a.m. Saturday, after the Senate finished a late-night series of votes but a couple of hours before the chamber would recess. Kyl blocked the request on the behalf of other Republicans.

Kyl charged that Reid did not give GOP Senators a chance to sign off on the deal, which would have allowed the measure to come to the Senator floor in November with only relevant amendments considered. The maneuver would prevent Senators from offering nongermane proposals or political message amendments.

“Now that would be fine with me, and I am sure it is fine with Sen. McCain, but everybody knows you can’t get unanimous consent of your colleagues when they are all gone at 1:40 in the morning without any advanced notice that the request was going to be made,” Kyl said.

Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been prodding Reid for months to give the defense bill time on the floor.

“As a result – though I would be happy personally to agree to the request – we don’t know what our Members would agree to and whether they would agree to limiting this to relevant amendments,” he added.

The Senate traditionally considers the defense legislation without pre-emptive restrictions on amendments, making it unlikely that all GOP Senators would have signed off on such an agreement before knowing the outcome of the elections.

Reid has been frustrated this year by GOP efforts to secure votes on matters that could cause electoral problems for some Democratic Senators.

Both sides conceded that McCain and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) had been working together on a process to move the defense measure to the floor, but the specifics of what constituted a sign off on a deal were in dispute.

“Sen. Levin has consulted with John McCain in regard to this matter. Sen. McCain knew this was going to happen. That is what the chairman of the committee told me, and Sen. Levin has never misled me ever,” Reid said on the floor.

But McCain’s office cried procedural foul.

“This was nothing more than a cheap procedural ploy to divert blame for the Senate’s failure – for the first time in a half-century – to debate and pass the most important piece of national security legislation that Congress considers,” a McCain aide said, in reference to the defense authorization. “Even by Sen. Reid’s standards, this was not serious attempt to address this critical legislation.”

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