Senate defense bill in limbo amid procedural dispute

Republicans and Bernie Sanders object to adding a technology research bill sponsored by Majority Leader Charles Schumer

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer was forced to delay consideration of the annual defense policy bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer was forced to delay consideration of the annual defense policy bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 17, 2021 at 3:38pm

The Senate called off a Wednesday vote to expedite debate on its National Defense Authorization Act amid uncertainty about how to include a high-profile amendment favored by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

The New York Democrat obtained unanimous consent to postpone the planned cloture vote on a motion to proceed to the NDAA until a time to be determined, saying on the floor that more work needed to be done on amendments.

Off the floor shortly thereafter, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., shed light on why Schumer may have called off the vote.

Inhofe told reporters he and other senators would have opposed the move to speed up the process because they were not sure about how the Senate would consider an amendment backed by Schumer that aims to strengthen U.S. competitiveness with China. 

If 41 Republicans had voted against cloture on the motion, it would have failed. Schumer's amendment is based on his United States Innovation and Competition Act, a bill passed by the Senate in June with 19 GOP votes. It would appropriate nearly $53 billion in subsidies for the U.S. semiconductor industry and authorize more than $135 billion for mostly research programs.

The bill was backed in the Senate by all but one member of the Democratic Ccaucus, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, but opposed by Inhofe and 30 other Republicans.

Schumer has not said how his bill would be added to the NDAA — as part of a substitute amendment, or as a standalone amendment, an aide said.

Inhofe said he did not want to back the procedural vote to advance consideration of the NDAA without knowing the path ahead, regardless of the fact that he opposes the substance of the amendment, too.

“We’re not ready for a motion to proceed unless we know where we’re proceeding to,” Inhofe told reporters. “This would be in my memory the first time this has happened and we don't want to set a new precedent and make it very difficult to pass NDAAs in the future.”

Meanwhile, the manager of the bill, Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., did not seem perturbed by how the Schumer amendment would be handled.

Reed said provisions seemingly unrelated to defense are sometimes tacked on to the NDAA.

“If you have the concurrence of the committee of jurisdiction and the leadership, we do that,” Reed told reporters.

But, in the House, some influential Democrats are not happy with the prospect of including the Schumer bill in the NDAA.

House objections

Adam Smith, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, has said he does not support adding a complicated provision to conferees' already considerable work reconciling two versions of a $778 billion NDAA.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and other senior House Democrats have said they would like to pass their own version of the competitiveness bill and then conference with the Senate on that, rather than work off Schumer's bill in the NDAA conference.

Meanwhile, Schumer said in floor remarks Wednesday that Democrats and Republicans are continuing to work on an agreement on amendments to the NDAA.

Postponing the cloture vote will “give the Armed Services Committee more time this morning to review the text and come to a final agreement,” he said. “With so much bipartisan interest in getting NDAA done soon, I see no reason why we can't finish this legislation or come to an agreement to finish this bill quickly.”

— Jennifer Shutt contributed to this story.