The Senate has officially begun work on the National Defense Authorization Act, the legislation that sets the policy for Pentagon programs. Senators voted 72-25 to start the debate on the bill, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for “an open and constructive amendment process without needless delay or dilatory tactics” or the “toxic amendments” that “severely hindered the NDAA process over in the House.”
For both sides of leadership, the hope is the process is as painless and uncontroversial as possible. Both sides want it done by the end of next week so that they can all go have a prolonged August recess. That will give them time to prepare for the shit show that will be the House/Senate conference on the two versions of the bills. The House bill is laced with poison pills on abortion, transgender health care, and book bans that most in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, want to avoid.
The bill is starting out well according to Schumer, with “51 amendments, 21 from Republicans, 21 from Democrats, and 9 bipartisan” adopted in committee. They’ve got a problem, however, in the form of Alabama’s own national security threat, Tommy Tuberville. The Republican is still not backing down from his blockade of hundreds of defense promotions and appointments over the Pentagon’s policy of allowing paid leave to service members for abortion and other reproductive health care.
On Tuesday, Tuberville told reporters he’d talked to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, saying, “We’re going to work this out,” and there’s the possibility of “give and take” on his issues. The problem is he’s not giving. His definition of “working this out” is the Pentagon capitulating to him. “I’ve got no timetable. They could nix it today if they wanted to and just go back to the regular policy, and then we could work this out,” Tuberville said. He could also just stop his blockade now, someone suggested, getting a flat no in response. “I’m not the one breaking the law,” he said.
No one is breaking the law, to be clear. Paid leave is not the same as paying for an abortion, but Republicans are always willfully slippery on the issue of the “fungibility” of federal money and taxpayer funding of abortion.
To appease Tuberville, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst has an amendment similar to what was included in the House version of the bill, prohibiting paid leave for travel for abortion care. Republicans hope that putting it to a vote—win or lose—will end Tuberville’s blockade, which is making them increasingly uncomfortable because it is impacting military readiness. So far, Tuberville isn’t interested in simply putting his issue up for an amendment vote. He wants an end to the policy, period. A losing vote, which is likely, would demonstrate that he doesn’t have the support of his colleagues in the Senate. He doesn’t want to lose, and he doesn’t want to be isolated.
This is not a fight McConnell wants to see happen on what he considers a marquee bill. “First and foremost,” he said on the floor Tuesday, “I would remind all of our colleagues that the number one piece of business on the Senate’s agenda is already overdue.” He added that “it’s especially important that we begin this process without further delay.”
There are plenty of bipartisan amendments on the table. Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Tim Scott have one that would allow the president to declare fentanyl trafficking a national emergency, creating sanctions for companies that supply precursors for the drug. It has been included in the base bill. A bizarre bipartisan lineup including Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, alongside Republicans Cynthia Lummis and Roger Marshall, are going to offer an amendment to establish new anti-money laundering provisions for the cryptocurrency industry.
Schumer worked on language with Republican Sens. Mike Rounds, Marco Rubio, and Todd Young on UFOs, now called UAPs, or unidentified anomalous phenomena. It would “require the National Archives and Records Administration to create a collection of records from across government agencies that can be declassified for the public’s use.” So that’s fun.
On the Senate side, the traditional bipartisan “defense authorization is sacred” approach still exists, minus Tuberville. That’s in stark contrast to the House, where partisan chaos reigned on the bill last week. That makes this a test for McConnell and Senate Republicans.
McConnell is as aware as anyone of the electoral danger in allowing an abortion fight to infect national security and military readiness. He can’t let his side spin out of control because the Senate is going to have to have a united front against the House when the conference committee meets to reconcile the two bills. That’s going to be hard enough already since McCarthy already made the process toxic by handing it over to Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene.
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