WASHINGTON — A defense policy bill easily advanced Wednesday in the Senate in the wake of at least one key senator's suggestion that the legislation's failure would negatively affect ongoing military construction projects such as the new headquarters for U.S. Strategic Command.
A number of other lawmakers had suggested that those warnings were overblown. Regardless, the warnings appeared to be moot after the measure cleared a key procedural hurdle by an overwhelming vote of 71-29. The bill is expected to win final passage late today.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she would support final passage of the bill even though she opposed advancing it Wednesday.
Fischer said her “no” vote on the procedural step was a protest of the amendment process — or lack of one — during Senate floor consideration of the annual legislation.
“That's unheard of in the past with this bill,” Fischer said.
Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year since the Kennedy administration. The House passed the measure last week on a strong bipartisan vote of 350-69.
Fischer touted aspects of the legislation, including its authorization of money to continue building the new StratCom headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
But she also echoed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's criticisms that Democrats had blocked Republican efforts at amendments because they did not want any votes on additional economic sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration has warned that such action could undermine last month's nuclear deal with Iran.
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In a blistering speech on the Senate floor, McConnell railed against Democratic leader Harry Reid for changing Senate rules to limit the GOP's ability to filibuster and complained that Reid was jamming a comprehensive $632.8 billion bill through the Senate without allowing any amendments.
Reid insists that he has no other choice to counter GOP delaying tactics on nominations and legislation, including the defense policy bill, which attracted some 500 amendments before Thanksgiving.
The overall bill would authorize $552.2 billion for the regular budget plus $80.7 billion for conflicts overseas in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It represents a compromise worked out by the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, after a similar bill stalled in the Senate just before Thanksgiving.
The bill covers the cost of combat pay for the nation's war-fighters and funds new aircraft and ships. It reflects both the drawdown in Afghanistan and deficit-driven reductions in defense spending.
The comprehensive bill would provide a 1 percent salary increase for military personnel, keep construction going on bases and an aircraft carrier in Virginia, and pay for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.
Sens. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, voted to move forward on the legislation. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voted against advancing it, although he also had indicated he would likely support the legislation on final passage.
While the bill does include some provisions intended to address sexual assault in the military, it does not include a proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to completely remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.
Grassley has been a big supporter of Gillibrand's proposal. He said he was disappointed it did not even receive a vote but said he would continue fighting for it next year.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.