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Defense bill awaits Congress' return

Sep. 4, 2014 - 05:32PM   |  
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When Congress returns to Capitol Hill on Monday, members will have three weeks of work scheduled — and a year’s worth of work to finish.

The annual defense authorization act and the 2015 defense appropriations measure await full Senate votes before they can move forward. Lawmakers also will be discussing possible action on U.S. involvement in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

And both chambers have promised continued oversight of the ongoing Veterans Affairs Department scandals, to ensure promised reforms are being made.

But the short timeline on the pre-election session likely means most major movement on those issues will wait until November. Members expect the most significant action in the September work period to be a budget resolution to keep government operations running past Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

In July, before the congressional summer break began, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised that the defense authorization bill would be on the chamber’s immediate agenda, calling it “extremely important to the fighting men and women of this country.”

Since then, Republican and Democratic leaders have signaled that they may be close to an agreement on how to handle dozens of amendments to the military policy measure. At last count, more than 100 amendments to the bill had been filed.

They include a reconsideration of President Obama’s 1 percent military pay raise proposal for troops in 2015, a review and restructuring of military sexual assault response, and ongoing battles over preferred Pentagon program retirements.

Last month, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he would also include in the debate a review of surplus military equipment sales to local law enforcement, in response to the public outcry over the armaments wielded by local police during the August protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Advancing the authorization bill out of the Senate would allow conference committee staffers to work on a compromise measure during the October break, increasing the chances of passage by the end of the year. Congress has passed a defense authorization measure for more than 50 years in a row.

But progress could be derailed if lawmakers insist on including debate on U.S. operations in Iraq, oversight that a growing number of elected officials have called for in recent weeks. Obama has taken criticism from both parties for his decision to authorize only limited “humanitarian” airstrikes in response to advancing Islamic State insurgents.

Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have repeatedly called for a stronger U.S. response in the region. But Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has spent recent weeks demanding the White House seek permission from Congress before escalating further, arguing that the new conflict needs a new authorization of military force.

Thus far, administration officials have resisted those calls, saying the White House is acting within existing authorities and has kept Congress informed of all military moves.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq in consulting and intelligence-gathering roles, but Obama has insisted there will be no deployment of ground fighting forces.

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