Senators poised to begin debate on defense authorization bill

Schumer and Pelosi agree to negotiate China competition bill separately

Schumer had hoped to include a bill to boost American research capabilities in the defense authorization measure, but faced bipartisan opposition. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Schumer had hoped to include a bill to boost American research capabilities in the defense authorization measure, but faced bipartisan opposition. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 17, 2021 at 10:59pm

Lawmakers Wednesday evening sidestepped the biggest stumbling block in the way of Senate consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act and are set to debate the sprawling policy measure starting Thursday.

The fiscal 2022 NDAA had been stuck on the issue of whether, or at least how, to include a costly amendment based on the United States Innovation and Competition Act. The USICA bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, is aimed at enhancing American competitiveness with foreign adversaries like China by subsidizing U.S. semiconductor manufacturers and authorizing a host of scientific research and other programs. 

Most Republicans voted against it when the Senate passed the measure as a freestanding bill in June and objected to including it in the NDAA, as Schumer wanted. Vermont independent Bernie Sanders joined them in opposing Schumer's strategy.

Schumer had planned a procedural vote to advance the NDAA on Wednesday morning, but postponed that vote while the dispute over his research bill raged backstage.

Later on Wednesday, Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., untied the legislative knot. They announced that House and Senate negotiators would hold a conference — separate from the NDAA process — to negotiate the best approach to the competitiveness bill. House members have written several bills on the issue that differ from Schumer’s but shared similar objectives.

“While there are many areas of agreement on these legislative proposals between the two chambers, there are still a number of important unresolved issues,” the leaders said.  “After Senate Republicans made it clear they would block the inclusion of USICA on the NDAA, we have decided that the best way to get an agreement will be through the conference process.”

Shortly after that agreement was announced, the Senate voted, 84-15, to limit debate on the motion to proceed to the NDAA, a step that brings the end of the debate closer. Schumer had hoped to wrap up work on the bill this week. 

Administration supports Senate NDAA

The NDAA would authorize $768 billion in national security programs at the Defense and Energy departments, on top of $9.9 billion authorized for defense in other legislation. The money itself is provided in separate appropriations measures that have yet to clear.

In another late-Wednesday development, the White House issued a statement of administration policy on the Senate NDAA that contained no veto threat but articulated numerous concerns. 

They included opposition to the bill’s mandates not to retire certain ships or aircraft, its prohibition on reducing the number of land-based nuclear missiles in the U.S. arsenal, and its restrictions on transferring detainees from the U.S. military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or building stateside prisons to house those detainees. 

The statement said that the White House “looks forward to working with Congress to address its concerns.”

A day of stasis

The path forward for the Senate NDAA was far from clear early Wednesday.

The ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., told reporters that he and other senators were not prepared to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed because they were not sure about how the Senate would consider Schumer’s USICA amendment — as part of the bipartisan substitute bill or, as some of Schumer's critics wanted, as a freestanding amendment.

The USICA measure, which got 19 GOP votes in the Senate's June vote, 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 in June by all but one member of the Democratic conference, Vermont's Sanders, and opposed by Inhofe and 30 other Republicans. 

But if 40 Republicans had joined Sanders Wednesday in defeating Schumer’s procedural move to advance the NDAA, it might have sidetracked the bill for at least a while.

Inhofe was not happy with the prospect of what he considered unrelated legislation being tacked on to the NDAA.

The resistance to Schumer came from the House, too. Inhofe was joined in opposing the inclusion of USICA on the defense bill by top Democratic representatives, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, and Adam Smith of Washington, the Armed Services Committee chairman.

With the USICA measure moved to another track, and with one procedural hurdle cleared, senators are ready to move forward with their NDAA debate.

The Senate still must vote to proceed to the bill, and it is not clear which of the hundreds of amendments filed on the bill might get a vote.

The House passed its version of the NDAA in September. If the bill becomes law, it would be the 61st consecutive fiscal year that Washington achieved that feat. 

— Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.