WASHINGTON — Construction of a new headquarters for U.S. Strategic Command could run into problems if Congress does not act quickly on a stalled defense policy bill, a key lawmaker warned Monday.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed to $136 million authorized by the annual legislation for continued construction of the facility at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
“If this amount is not authorized for appropriations, (the Defense Department) will have to stop work halfway during construction, leading to contract claims, lost time, maybe even lawsuits, certainly extra work,” Inhofe said during a speech on the Senate floor.
It was not immediately clear when the project would be affected. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees contracting for the project, could not be reached for comment.
People familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested that even if the legislation continues to be held up, it would have little immediate impact on the StratCom headquarters construction.
They downplayed the notion that workers would be walking off the job site simply because the bill takes a few more weeks or months to pass.
Congress has approved a defense authorization bill every year for half a century, but the Senate was unable to advance the latest measure before Thanksgiving recess because of disagreements over the hundreds of amendments that lawmakers have proposed. Senate Republicans and even some Democrats, for example, have sought a vote on an amendment that would impose new sanctions against Iran — a move the Obama administration has warned could undermine its agreement with that country on nuclear weapons.
With the legislation stalled in the Senate, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on Monday unveiled a compromise measure totaling $632.8 billion, including $80.7 billion for overseas operations such as the conflict in Afghanistan.
They hope their proposal can win speedy passage by both chambers and are warning their colleagues about the consequences of a failure to do so.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there wasn't enough time to go through the regular process and pleaded with colleagues to back the compromise without amendments.
“It is not a Democratic bill. It is not a Republican bill. It is a bipartisan defense bill,” Levin said on the Senate floor.
Time is short, with the House expected to adjourn for the year at the end of this week.
|AT WAR, AT HOME|
|Find more World-Herald coverage of the Nebraskans and Iowans who have served our country at our At War, At Home page.|
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is keeping a close eye on the situation, according to spokesman Joe Hack, who said her aides have been working with the committee staff members to determine the impact of a stalled defense bill on military construction projects.
“Obviously, this is uncharted territory, and there is a great deal of ambiguity,” Hack said. “It's not clear that construction at StratCom would come to a halt.”
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., also is monitoring the situation closely and said through spokesman Larry Farnsworth that any time an authorization lapses, it creates uncertainty.
Proponents of quick action have highlighted other consequences of continued inaction.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that failure to act before year's end would create more uncertainty for the military and undercut the nation's commanders.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other leaders urging prompt action and detailing special pay, bonuses and other authorities that would expire if the bill slips to January.
“The authorities therein are critical to the nation's defense and urgently needed to ensure we all keep faith with the men and women, military and civilian, selflessly serving in our armed forces,” Dempsey wrote. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.
If the House votes this week on the compromise and then adjourns, the Senate would still have the opportunity to amend the measure. That would definitely delay the bill until next year as the House would have no time to respond to the Senate changes.
The compromise bill seeks to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the ranks.
The bill would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions and mandate that any individual convicted of sexual assault would face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would require a civilian review when a decision is made not to prosecute a case, provide a special counsel for victims and eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial.
The compromise bill does not include the contentious proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers. That plan drew strong opposition from the Pentagon as well as men and women in the Senate.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.