Defense Bill Stalled Over Amendments

Every now and again, it's not Mitch McConnell's fault.

My initial reaction to the POLITICO headline “Republicans stall defense bill over amendment dispute” was a complete lack of shock. Indeed, I’m not sure I’d have bothered reading it if I didn’t have a vested interest in the passage of said bill. The story itself, though, tells a different story.

Must-pass defense policy legislation hit a fresh snag in the Senate on Monday as Republicans blocked the bill from advancing, with no clear path to resolving a partisan dispute over amendment votes.

An effort to cut off debate on the Senate version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act resulted in a 45-51 vote, well short of the 60 votes needed to move the legislation forward.

Now wait just a cotton pickin’ minute. I’m no mathematician but 45 votes is not only short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster it’s short of a majority. Indeed, a majority of the Senators voted against it and at least 5 Democratic Senators didn’t vote for it. In what way did Republicans stall this bill?

It’s the latest setback for the major defense policy legislation, which has little margin for error as House and Senate leaders aim to send a compromise bill to President Joe Biden’s desk before the end of the year. Debate on the measure had hit an impasse before Thanksgiving, when several Republican senators objected to amendment votes in protest of their proposals being left out.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Republicans for “halting the process” over a handful of GOP senators not getting votes.

“For a while now Republicans have claimed they wanted to pass the National Defense Authorization Act immediately,” Schumer said following the vote. “But a few moments ago, Republicans just blocked legislation to support the troops, support our families, keep Americans safe. Republican dysfunction has again derailed bipartisan progress.”

Ahead of Monday’s procedural vote, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to oppose advancing the bill further without progress on amendments, citing GOP calls for votes on measures such as sanctions over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany.

“Considering sanctions on the pipeline that fuels [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s encroachment over Europe, including provisions from Senator [Jim] Risch, that closely mirror language that the House added unanimously is certainly worth the Senate’s time,” McConnell said.

All Republicans except Maine Sen. Susan Collins voted to filibuster the measure. A handful of Democrats opposed advancing the legislation, while Schumer voted no in order to bring up a procedural motion to reconsider the vote at a later time.

The reporting here is rather unclear. Offhand, I support sanctions on Nord Stream for all manner of reasons but would prefer that it be a standalone measure. Then again, the United States Congress really doesn’t do standalone measures anymore and hasn’t in a long time. And it hardly seems like a stretch to include it in the NDAA, given that containing Russian expansionism is ostensibly the Defense Department’s number two priority. (I’ll ignore Schumer’s idiotic patriotic rah-rahing, given that it’s now a bipartisan schtick.)

Regardless, talk of “filibuster” is simply out of place here. Even if that tactic were gotten rid of, Schumer was unable to muster 50 Democratic votes. Even accepting that Schumer’s vote in the other direction was purely tactical, if even a single Democrat—much less “a handful”—opposed the measure, one can’t blame the minority party.

The remainder of the report gives more insight but, frankly, it sounds like typical Senate shenanigans rather than McConnell-driven obstructionism for its own sake.

The failed vote means senators will need to work out their dispute to advance the defense bill, though it’s not immediately clear what that compromise might be. It will also consume floor time during a week in which Congress also needs to clear another government funding patch to avoid a shutdown at midnight on Friday.

McConnell criticized Schumer on the floor for delaying debate on the bill for months after it was approved by the Armed Services Committee and for moving to cut off debate without additional amendment votes. But it was objections from GOP senators that scuttled votes on nearly 20 amendments from senators in both parties before the Thanksgiving recess.

A deal forged by Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma to hold roll call votes on an array of amendments collapsed the week before Thanksgiving as seven Republicans objected to protest the exclusion of their proposals.

Among the objectors, Risch, the top Senate Foreign Relations Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for a vote on their Nord Stream 2 sanctions proposal.

Despite bipartisan backing for punitive actions against Russia, the Biden administration opposes further sanctions on the pipeline, arguing it would alienate European allies.

With votes torpedoed, Democrats shelved the bill until after the holiday and set up votes to end debate and move to final passage this week, to be followed by negotiations with the House.

But the impasse remained Monday evening, as McConnell hit Democrats over the pipeline sanctions issue, noting similar language was adopted in the House defense bill that passed in September.

On the Senate floor, Reed lamented the impasse, noting the bipartisan process that produced the bill and saying the Senate “demonstrated irresponsibility” in holding up the bill, arguing the holdups were “not central to the purpose” of the bill.

“It will be done. … And we’ll have to use procedures that are appropriate to get it done,” Reed said. “But we just missed an opportunity to send a clear message that we support this legislation, we support our troops, we’re going to go to final passage.”

With the clock ticking, Risch, who objected this month in order to force a vote on his pipeline sanctions proposal, openly wondered about the path forward.

“I’m just astounded by where we are, on the cusp of December. I don’t know how this gets done,” Risch said. “What’s the path forward? I don’t know. I truly don’t.”

My prediction is that the NDAA will get done. Considering the Nord Stream sanctions were included in the bill passed by the Democratic-majority House, I suspect it will be included.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Media, US Politics, US Senate
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    I know nothing of this bill, save what’s written here.

    I may be dreaming here, but if this vote is indicative of a Senate that stops voting as a party bloc, and rather votes in the old-fashioned way of supporting whatever each senator believes is in the country’s best interest, then that would be a good thing for the country.

    I have no particular reason to think this is the case, but a guy can dream.

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  2. Scott says:

    The buzz around my office is to plan for a 12 month Continuing Resolution. Oh, joy.

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  3. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Even accepting that Schumer’s vote in the other direction was purely tactical, if even a single Democrat—much less “a handful”—opposed the measure, one can’t blame the minority party.

    Dear James:

    Once upon a time in my living memory – perhaps not in yours – Senators from both sides were likely to vote one way or another on the various bills. More recently, Republicans under Mitch McConnell have voted as a bloc in order to prevent Democrats from governing. That is what requires Democrats to vote as a bloc.

    You are taking that state of affairs as a given, which, yes, it is. But the reason it exists is an obstructionist Republican Party that has no positive ideas, only to sack the government and give our assets in it to billionaires. That deserves some opprobium.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: The country is more polarized than it was three decades ago. It’s also more sorted. The reason Democrats used to vote for Republican-sponsored bills and vice-versa is that there used to be a lot of Southern Democrats who were Republicans in all but name and Northeastern Republicans who were essentially modern Democrats. Now, there are like two of those (Joe Manchin and Susan Collins).

    But, unless this plays out differently than I expect, this isn’t even that. It’s simply a bill that doesn’t have enough votes to pass because there are a significant number of Senators on both sides willing to leverage their vote for concessions. That’s been a thing in American politics for a very long time, indeed.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    if even a single Democrat—much less “a handful”—opposed the measure, one can’t blame the minority party.

    I detect a false equivalency, where in a single Democrat is the same as 50 Republicans. James, you know damn well that the GOP deserves a fair amount of responsibility for this bill not passing. Not all the responsibility, but certainly a fair amount. We can wheel and deal with the DEMs who voted against it. There’s a good chance no amount of wheeling and dealing with anyone in today’s GOP would accomplish anything..

    Every now and again, it’s not Mitch McConnell’s fault.

    FTR, I blame Obama.

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  6. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @James Joyner: I’m just saying that today’s senatorial politics is not the only one imaginable and that one political party is determined to destroy the country if they can’t have ALL THE POWER.

    To say that this is the way it’s always been and always will be is to concede to the nihilists.

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  7. Andy says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    What passes for political parties are also substantially different. Parties today have no real power compared to the time you reference. Today they are merely brands. This results in the atomization of politics where most politicians care primarily about the median primary voter. Many of the old tools for resolving disputes and forging compromise in the Senate and Congress simply don’t exist anymore.

    And three decades ago was near the end of a half-century of Democratic dominance in the Senate and House, where the Democrats were a much broader and different coalition than they are today and when “fusionism” still existed in the GoP. By the early 1990’s, political sorting was already well underway, and party structures were growing continuously weaker as they gave into efforts to reform political financing and democratize the primary system.

    So yes, in theory, our parties could return to operating the way they used to, but that requires reforms that make them more than the brands they are today.

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  8. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Andy:

    where the Democrats were a much broader and different coalition than they are today

    !!!
    Publicly admitted Republicans today are aroung 25% of voters. They adhere to a coherent and narrow ideology and are opposed to any governance whatsoever. The Democrats represent everyone else. I can agree that the split is along different lines than it was 50 years ago.

    There is also an issue here of institutions, which Andy and James are arguing, versus personal integrity. That conflict will always be there, but now hewing to the Republicans’ bending of institutions in their favor raises questions about the personal integrity and loyalty to country of those in power who support that bending.

    So we have Ted Cruz, who is all too happy to lick his master’s shoes after having his family insulted and runs off to a luxury vacation in Mexico as his constituents are dying from the cold and the broken governance system (institutions!) in Mexico. And he’s not the only one.

    There’s a lot to all this, but my point remains that if we want the United States to continue as a democratic country, we must imagine better than our current Congress, particularly the Senate. And then we must move toward what we can imagine.

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  9. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    Parties today have no real power compared to the time you reference.

    People say this, but then we see every Republican voting in lock step opposition to everything. That certainly looks like a powerful party.

    The individual Congress critters don’t seem to have much power, unless by some weird quirk of fate every one of them votes their conscience exactly the same way, every time.

    And it’s not like the party base has even heard of the pipeline, sanctions, or anything else at issue here. So they aren’t listening to their voters in any but the broadest sense of “Democrats are satanist pedophiles”.

    The Republican Senators are taking their marching orders and marching with it. That’s a powerful party.

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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    Indeed, a majority of the Senators voted against it and at least 5 Democratic Senators didn’t vote for it. In what way did Republicans stall this bill?

    If you hire two guys to mow your lawn and one never shows up, and the other does and gets 95% of the work done by themselves, who’s fault is it the lawn hasn’t been mowed? The guy who did show up because they failed to complete the remaining 5%?

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  11. Raoul says:

    My sentiments exactly Stormy Dragon. An overwhelming number of Dems support the bill and an overwhelming number of Reps are against it, thus it’s Dems fault. We don’t know the mechanism of how the sanctions got in the House bill but I would not conclude it is because it has Dem support in the caucus. My question is, if we pass the sanctions, doesn’t that increase the chances of Russia invading Ukraine?

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  12. Thomm says:

    @Stormy Dragon: depends…did the guy that didn’t show vote republican? You know, since they are blameless for voting as a block and almost always seem to, even though the party itself doesn’t have power over it’s members I am told. Plus, how does Susan Collins have this moderate rep? The only thinh I have seen is that she is not as anti-choice as the rest of them but one issue does not a moderate make.

  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    People say this, but then we see every Republican voting in lock step opposition to everything. That certainly looks like a powerful party.

    People who say that the parties have no power really mean that party leaders have no power. They are correct in the sense that party leaders can’t pick candidates any more, and that elected officials are much more likely to do what they think will protect them from getting primaried in the next election than to do what party leaders want them to do, should the two ever differ.

    Republicans vote as an obstructive (and destructive) bloc because that’s what they think their voters want them to do. They’re probably right. They don’t need Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy to tell them what their positions should be; Rupert Murdoch and Q do that.

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  14. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Chuck Schumer is many things, but a wartime consigliere is not one of them.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Republicans vote as an obstructive (and destructive) bloc because that’s what they think their voters want them to do. They’re probably right. They don’t need Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy to tell them what their positions should be; Rupert Murdoch and Q do that.

    On sanctions on a pipeline? On what is typically must-pass legislation? Once McConnell decided he was opposed, everyone else had to be opposed or be considered even more of a squishy RINO than McConnell.

    You’re underestimating McConnell’s power. He controls the votes of his caucus by setting a left-most, most-cooperative limit.

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  16. Gavin says:

    a majority of the Senators voted against it and at least 5 Democratic Senators didn’t vote for it. In what way did Republicans stall this bill?

    Those of us who have passed middle school math still blame Republicans.

    How many Senators are there? 100. Half is.. 50. And what’s 50 – 5? Yep, 45 Republicans.. each of whom do in fact have agency and independently chose to vote against this bill.

    Unless and until a greater number 0f Democrats vote against this bill, the blame is 100% in Republican hands.

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  17. Ken_L says:

    I have to say it sums up everything I find both absurd and offensive about US foreign policy that its Congress sees nothing objectionable about trying to veto the energy policies of longstanding, supposedly sovereign allies by means of coercive sanctions.

    It’s of a piece with the latest Hunter Biden “scandal”, which apparently lies in the fact that the US government did nothing to stop a Chinese firm buying a cobalt mine in Africa.

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  18. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    People say this, but then we see every Republican voting in lock step opposition to everything. That certainly looks like a powerful party.

    The individual Congress critters don’t seem to have much power, unless by some weird quirk of fate every one of them votes their conscience exactly the same way, every time.

    What is motivating that behavior? Is it because the GoP has a coherent party organization pursuing a set of goals that is coordinated among members of the party or is it because the political incentives for individual members run in parallel? I think the answer is clearly the latter. In a sense they are like a zombie horde in which individuals act the same way – not because there is a strategy, but because each is acting with the same incentives.

    See any of Stephen’s posts on the unique weakness of American political parties or just consider the fact that the GoP opposed Trump’s nomination in 2016 and were powerless to stop him from winning primaries.

    The House and Senate leadership are all that remains of any sort of organized behavior, and they are, in most cases, only able to bend the curve since they don’t have much actual power over members.

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  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    It seems to me that on many, if not all, of these amendments, everyone has a really good idea about how the vote will go, and it isn’t that they are likely to pass.

    However, they want their vote for the sake of standing in front of the cameras and speaking their piece. Meanwhile, leadership is more in the “let’s just get this done”. But of course, not if you’re Mitch McConnell. Not getting anything done in the Senate (except confirming Republican judicial appointments, and there aren’t any) is his brand. It’s what he does.