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Defense Authorization Again Headed Toward Last-Minute Dealmaking

It was probably wishful thinking on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s part when he added floor action on the annual defense policy bill to his crowded to-do list for the abbreviated September session.

And with Congress grappling this week to finish a spending resolution that will prevent a government shutdown and address the White House request for authority to arm and train Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group, it has become clear the armed services bill won’t get floor time before the Senate recesses for the election campaign.

As a result, things are shaping up as a replay of last year, when the Senate never debated its version of the authorization bill and a deal worked out by the House and Senate Armed Services chairmen and their staffs cleared both chambers shortly before lawmakers recessed for the December holidays. This year, the Senate’s defense authorization will likely stay on the shelf until after midterms, and even then there would be a narrow window to give the measure a full Senate floor debate.

That is likely to leave it to Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and his House counterpart, California Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, to again engineer a deal that will bridge the differences between the House-passed bill (HR 4435) and the committee-approved Senate bill (S 2410).

To that end, members of the Armed Services panels will meet informally this week to begin discussing differences in their competing defense bills.

“It’s informal discussions between the House and the Senate,” Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said. Thornberry described the meetings as “preliminary” and said holding discussions now would enable lawmakers to write a final bill more easily and inclusively than last year.

Both chairmen have an important incentive to finish the job: They are retiring at the end of this Congress and neither wants to be blamed for failing to enact a Pentagon policy bill for the first time in 53 years.

“The bill will get done,” a House Armed Services aide said. “There are still a number of paths to final passage.”

Deja Vu

Levin and his panel’s ranking Republican, Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe, had hoped to avoid repeating the process that unfolded last year. Without an agreement to limit amendments, the legislation quickly stalled.

This year, the Senate panel finished marking up its bill on May 22 — the day after the House passed its version. In early June, Levin and Inhofe implored colleagues to file amendments as early as possible, so they could be vetted with the goal of clearing as many as possible for inclusion in a manager’s package.

“Neither of us want to be in the position that we were in last year,” Levin said.

That, however, appears to be precisely where they are.

So far, 146 amendments to the Senate bill have been filed and few appear likely to incite controversy or upend the process.

But if Levin’s and Inhofe’s bill does reach the floor, perhaps hundreds more amendments could be introduced, including proposals aimed at toughening Iran sanctions — an issue Reid has made clear he does not want to debate on the Senate floor until after the conclusion of nuclear talks with Tehran, which have been extended until late November.

Other timely yet contentious proposals could spring up during a Senate defense debate, including amendments that would roll back the Pentagon’s authority to transfer surplus military equipment to local police in response to the police crackdowns on protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

Levin promised colleagues he would review the program before the defense authorization bill hits the Senate floor.

He also may look to insert language into the bill that would authorize spending under the Overseas Contingency Operations account for continued military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and, potentially, Syria. The fund primarily finances military operations in Afghanistan.

Without a formal request from the White House at the time of the Senate markup, Levin’s panel elected to forego authorizing spending under the fund.

The House Armed Services Committee, however, marked up the account at the administration’s requested placeholder level of $79.4 billion. The formal White House request for the OCO topped out at $59.7 billion.

With Levin and McKeon — whose respective bills bear their names in recognition of their years of congressional service — expected to work out a final authorization again this year, lawmakers are wondering whether negotiations that sidestep a formal conference process and largely leave senators on the sidelines is the new normal.

Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said authorizers and appropriators miss their annual deadline “all the time” these days.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer to go back to the place where, before Oct. 1, we get all of our work done, like we’re supposed to,” Smith said.

“At this point,” he added, “that’s not exactly unusual, unfortunately.”

Megan Scully contributed to this report.

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