Senate Republicans on Tuesday bashed Democratic leaders in the chamber as apathetic or possibly antagonistic to the needs of the military in their decision not to speed up legislative work on the annual defense authorization bill.
“Each year we come together in a bipartisan way with input from Republicans and Democrats in order to pass this,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We continue to place a priority on our men and women in uniform and also on the resources that they need in order to really carry out the missions. This [delay] has really gotten dangerous.”
The authorization bill, a massive budget policy measure that has passed through Congress annually for almost six decades, appears to be stalled in the Senate by other legislative priorities, including the much-debated budget reconciliation package that Democrats hope to finalize in coming weeks.
The defense measure includes language formalizing the annual military pay raise and equipment purchasing priorities. This year, House and Senate drafts of the bill include sweeping changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice regarding sexual assault and harassment cases, as well as strategic priorities related to Russia and China.
The House finalized its draft of the measure in September, but a version passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee has been awaiting a full chamber vote since July.
Now, with less than four weeks of legislative work left in the 2021 congressional calendar, House and Senate lawmakers still don’t know when that vote may occur and whether they’ll have time to negotiate a compromise on the draft differences to finalize a bill before the end of December.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democratic leaders are “sleep-walking toward yet another preventable problem” by delaying the authorization bill vote. Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the continued delay by chamber leadership to bring up the measure for a vote is concerning and frustrating.
“I don’t know why we don’t have time for this,” he said at a press conference Tuesday with 13 Senate Republicans pressing for the Senate to immediately take up the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has not publicly announced any timing plans for the authorization bill. His office did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he has been pressing Democratic leaders to move quickly on the issue, but to no avail.
“We should get it to the floor, and that’s a message I’m communicating,” he said. “The problem is we have to get reconciliation [first].”
The budget reconciliation bill has been debated around Capitol Hill for months, but lawmakers and White House officials are still unsure when the final package may be voted on. If it doesn’t come until December, and if the NDAA vote waits on that, all time for negotiation and compromise between the House and Senate versions of the legislation could be gone.
“The bottom line is we’re running out of time,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “And I just don’t mean we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and we haven’t done the NDAA. I mean we’re also running out of time to continue to be the superpower of the world.”
House Democrats are also frustrated with the delay.
“The Senate at some point has the pass the defense bill,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash. “I am very distressed ... it’s all sitting right there.”
The Senate is scheduled to leave for a week-long Veterans Day recess starting this Friday, then return for four days before breaking again for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Reporter Joe Gould contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.