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Less time, less drama: Congress steps up work on NDAA

Both chambers lost substantial time while forced to stay home during the coronavirus shutdown in April and May

This week, lawmakers in both chambers will focus much of their attention on the massive annual defense policy bill. And unlike last year, when markups and debates often devolved into partisan clashes, members sound optimistic that this year’s efforts will be less acrimonious.

On Monday, the Senate will resume floor debate of its version of the defense authorization bill with a goal of finalizing and passing it before members leave Washington for the July Fourth recess. Two days later, the House Armed Services Committee will hold its full committee markup of its bill, a marathon event that likely will run into the wee hours Thursday.

The annual bill, which adjusts military policy and in fiscal 2021 would authorize $731.6 billion in funding for national security, is one of a handful of must-pass bills Congress handles each year. It has been enacted 59 consecutive years, typically with substantial bipartisan majorities.

But that doesn’t mean it has always been easy. Last year, upset with provisions that would have blocked the deployment of a new, slightly less powerful sub-launched nuclear missile, House Republicans disavowed their chamber’s bill, which passed without a single GOP vote.

The coronavirus pandemic is partially responsible for the lack of partisan rancor on this bill, at least so far. Both chambers lost substantial legislating time during the weeks they were forced to stay home during the widespread shutdown in April and May. With time running short, both Armed Services committees focused on areas of agreement while preparing their drafts.

“I think it’s a pretty solid bill without a lot of the real flashpoint controversies that have been in some of the bills in the past,” said Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who sits on Armed Services. “I think it could be fairly straightforward on the floor.”

Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican who is also a member of the panel, agreed.

“We had, for the most part, a bipartisan exercise in committee,” he said. “And we ironed out most of the controversial issues there.”

[Undeterred by pandemic, lawmakers ready their NDAA proposals]

During its closed-door markup earlier this month, the panel adopted an amendment by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would expunge Confederate names and symbols from military installations within three years. Republicans plan to offer a counterproposal that would merely create a commission, while Warren has written language speeding up the timeline to one year.

This issue is sure to be debated and could prove contentious. But Senate GOP leaders have signaled they are open to Warren’s original language.

Unlike previous years, when the bill took on big initiatives like military housing, sexual assault and acquisition overhauls, this year’s outbreak kept lawmakers mostly focused on the basics: making sure the military has what it needs to perform its duties during a pandemic and at a time of security challenges around the world.

“That might have tamped down some other things that could have been controversial,” Kaine said.

Race relations and other issues

Similarly, on the House side, lawmakers say they have worked to find areas of agreement. As a result, all six of the House Armed Services subcommittee markups were adopted easily and with little debate, reflecting a desire to avoid drawn-out disagreements.

“Both sides, I think, are doing a great job of trying to avoid controversy,” said Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne, who sits on the Seapower and the Strategic Forces subcommittees.

House Armed Services member Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., agreed that the constraints imposed by the pandemic have kept the committee focused on passing a bill in a timely manner that will attract broad support from both sides of the aisle.

“I think it’s actually driven a greater commitment to bipartisan compromise,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially divisive amendments that could come up. Many of them address issues that have roiled American society in the weeks following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

On the Senate side, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal has introduced an amendment that would change the Insurrection Act to require the president to consult with Congress before using military troops to deal with domestic protests. Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz has sponsored another that would end the distribution of surplus military equipment to police departments.

Despite this being a presidential election year, Kaine said he doesn’t expect electoral politics to play much of a role in shaping the bill. President Donald Trump, who has threatened a veto over the Confederate renaming issue, may view the bill as a messaging vehicle, but lawmakers are more focused on passing it, he said.

“I don’t think that electoral politics is going to screw this thing up in Congress,” Kaine said. “This is a bill that has a military pay raise in it, for God’s sake.”

Brown said he could envision the issue of nuclear testing, which the Pentagon has said it wants to resume, leading to a spirited debate. Brown, who spent five years on active duty as an Army helicopter pilot and served 25 more in the Army Reserve, plans on introducing language promoting diversity and inclusion in the military.

One amendment would increase transparency regarding the candidates nominated to the service academies, while another would address racial disparities within the military justice system. And he is a co-sponsor, along with Nebraska Republican Don Bacon, of the House provision that would require the renaming of the bases honoring Confederates.

“We’re at a moment in time in this country where so many more Americans are focusing on issues that many of us have been focusing on for many years,” Brown said, noting that he is the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus who sits on either the Senate or House Armed Services Committee.

“It’s exciting to be a part of it at this moment because I think we can make real progress on behalf of the armed services and the men and women who serve,” he said. “So yeah, I’m ready.”

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Lindsey McPherson, Jennifer Shutt and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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