Dems, GOP craft backup for stalled defense bill
WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing a standoff in the Senate, the top Democrats and Republicans on Congress’ military panels are working on a backup plan to ensure that they can agree before the year’s end on providing a pay raise for troops, buying new ships and aircraft and addressing the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.
The Senate and the House have only one legislative week to work out their differences before the House adjourns for the year on Dec. 13. A version of the bill remains stalled in the Senate, caught up in a dispute over amendments.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, expressed optimism on Thursday that they could agree with their Senate counterparts on a pared-back bill.
“We have to have this done,” Smith told reporters. “A whole lot of bad stuff happens if we don’t pass this by the end of the year, in terms of military pay, in terms of death-benefit compensation, in terms of military construction projects and on and on and on.”
The fallback plan would mean that some controversial issues that the Senate wants to vote on would have to wait until next year, including a new round of sanctions on Iran, steps to rein in the National Security Agency’s spying and aid to Egypt.
The Obama administration wants to avoid any congressional votes on new sanctions against Iran just weeks after world powers announced a deal to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program. At this point, no votes are expected, but a clearer picture will emerge when the Senate returns next week.
The defense bill is one of several items in a busy year-end agenda for Congress that also includes a budget bill and renewal of food stamps and farm programs. Congressional negotiators are pursuing a modest deal to ease the automatic spending cuts that are squeezing both the defense and domestic federal programs.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she would withhold support from any compromise to ease across-the-board cuts until Republicans also agree to renew expiring unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, adding a major complication. At the same time, conservatives are balking at a proposal to raise fees on airline tickets to pay for transportation security agents as part of an agreement, another hurdle.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, are preparing a backup plan for averting another government shutdown in January if there’s no budget deal by then.