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Defense bill’s new path forward would cost votes on GOP priorities

Votes on vaccine mandates and drafting women for military service now are unlikely to happen

Marco Rubio's insistence on a vote on his amendment targeting slave labor in China could cost his GOP colleagues votes on their proposals.
Marco Rubio's insistence on a vote on his amendment targeting slave labor in China could cost his GOP colleagues votes on their proposals. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

With his colleagues ready to proceed, Florida Republican Marco Rubio scuttled floor consideration of the Senate’s version of the annual defense policy bill this week, costing his own party a chance to get Democrats on the record on key priorities.

The bill’s managers had struck a deal to hold 24 amendment votes, on topics ranging from vaccine mandates to a proposed requirement that women register for the draft.

But because Rubio refused to budge on his demand for a vote on his proposal to bar importation of Chinese goods made by the slave labor of Uyghurs and others, it now appears negotiators will forge a compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act and present it for votes in the House and Senate.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he couldn’t allow a vote on Rubio’s amendment because the House Ways and Means Committee planned to protest it as a violation of the Constitution’s rule that revenue-generating measures originate in the House — never mind that the Congressional Budget Office has found the revenue insignificant.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Rubio said the House’s interpretation of generating revenue was so broad it could be applied to almost anything, fairly or not.

“They wield this blue slip thing to mean whatever they want it to mean,” he said, noting that his amendment had already passed the Senate as a standalone bill, and would pass the House too if House leaders would bring it to a vote.

But there was no indication House leaders planned to do so, and on Thursday evening, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he expected a House vote next week on the new version of the NDAA.

With a 60-year streak of enacting the defense authorization into law on the line, leaders are eager to pass the bill by any legislative avenue necessary.

“It’s unfortunate that this misguided demand of a single Republican senator is preventing this important legislation to support our national security from moving in the Senate,” Schumer said during a floor speech on Wednesday. He pointed out that the lineup of amendment votes he’d proposed had the backing of both Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and ranking member James M. Inhofe, R-Okla.

Messaging opportunities lost

In addition to forcing a legislative workaround, Rubio’s intransigence has likely cost several of his GOP colleagues roll call votes on their amendments. Roll call votes, especially on high-profile issues, are not just a way of tallying whether an amendment is adopted, but can serve as an important messaging vehicle as senators’ positions are put on the record individually.

Sometimes, the political messaging is the point.

For example, Oklahoma Republican James Lankford had received a pledge from Schumer to hold a vote on his amendment to require completion of all portions of the border wall started during the Trump administration that were halted once President Joe Biden took office.

Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and a handful of other Republicans, were slated to get a vote on their amendment to block the Defense Department from dishonorably discharging any servicemember who refused to obey the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Another amendment, spearheaded by Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, would impose sanctions against executives of the Russian company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as well as its financers, denying them entry to the United States and blocking use of their funds in the United States. Risch argues that Russia is using access to its natural gas to coerce its European neighbors.

Biden has already waived these sanctions, so Democrats would face the prospect of opposing the leader of their party or appearing weak on Russia.

And Josh Hawley, R-Mo., thought he’d secured a vote for his amendment to strip from the bill a provision requiring women to register for the Selective Service, a priority of social conservatives.

It won’t be just Republicans who will miss out on offering amendments. 

For example, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders expected a vote on his amendment to strip out a $25 billion increase to the Defense Department’s topline. This amendment was likely to fail, since the increase already has the support of every member of the Armed Services Committee except for Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Nonetheless, it is important to progressives to make clear their opposition to the size of the Pentagon’s budget.

All told, two dozen amendments — not all of them controversial — won’t receive votes if the Senate gives up on passing its own version of the NDAA.

Some of these proposals could still make it into the final bill, if the lawmakers negotiating the compromise bill sign off, but not if their inclusion puts the bill’s ultimate passage in question.

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