Congress Has Less Than 10 Days To Make All of These National Security Decisions

Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Jack Reed, and James Inhofe listen during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Jack Reed, and James Inhofe listen during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

From Iraq to the budget, Congress has a long way to go and a short time to get there. By Molly O’Toole

In 10 days, on Dec. 11, a continuing resolution to fund the federal government will expire, forcing another shutdown if Congress doesn’t approve more money. It’s also the deadline for members of Congress to push through a long list of defense and national security issues they once again have put off until the last minute before planning to head home for the holidays.

But first, Congress has to pass either another stop-gap spending measure to continue funding the government at the previous year’s levels, or an omnibus budget bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year — or some combination of the two. It also has to address supplemental spending requests from the White House, including $5.6 billion in additional war funds to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, or ISIL).

Near the top of the to-do list, Congress must extend its authorization of a Pentagon program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, which also expires on Dec. 11. The Obama administration says the program is central to its strategy to defeat the terrorist group.

For Iraq, Pentagon officials want Congress to approve more than $1 billion of the Overseas Contingency Operations supplemental request before the first of 1,500 additional troops can be deployed to Iraq, roughly doubling the size of the U.S. presence there. But the commanders aren’t waiting. Showing the military’s lack of confidence in Congress’s agility, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said last week that they will begin sending the new U.S. troops ahead of the funding, anyway.

Congressional leadership in both parties initially expressed their intention to pass a trillion-dollar-plus omnibus. But following Obama’s executive action on immigration on Nov. 20, several Republicans now are pushing Congress to approve funds for most of the government through September, but limit funding to agencies charged with implementing immigration to early next year. Just before the Thanksgiving recess and Obama’s executive action, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said the parties were still working out their differences on the budget bill – the Democrats want more in discretionary spending, and the GOP want more for defense. But “absent any disruption external to our work,” she said the bill would be ready for consideration by Dec. 8. “We have to show that we can govern; we don’t want a shutdown,” Mikulski told Defense One, “and then we also don’t want government on autopilot.” The budget bill, she said, must meet “our national security needs, the current crises facing America, from Ebola protection, and the ISIL pieces, but then also the important functions of government.”

Defense Department officials have also said that continued authorization from Congress is necessary to proceed with its train-and-equip program. But that prong of the Obama administration’s strategy has come under heavy scrutiny from members of Congress who question how an initial estimate of 5,000 Syrian fighters in more than a year’s time will be sufficient for taking back Islamic State strongholds, and also what the U.S. intends to do about the Syrian regime.

We have to show that we can govern; we don’t want a shutdown.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

In recent years the passage of the annual defense authorization bill, or NDAA, has come down to the wire. It has been signed 53 consecutive years, and is widely accepted as must-pass legislation. The retiring authors of this year’s NDAA, House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have been hammering out the differences between the House and Senate versions for weeks in a resignation that the bill is likely to be jammed through Congress to Obama’s desk without an open amendment process. As first reported by Politico, the leadership is working through an impasse over troop benefits.

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Levin told reporters before the Thanksgiving break that he hoped to bring up the NDAA the week Congress returned, saying, “It’s not a great precedent to pursue this way, but that’s the position that we’re in, and we’ll make the best of it, because we need a bill.”

At the end of December, the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan officially comes to a close. But if Congress leaves town on Dec. 12 without acting, a special visa program for Afghan interpreters who worked for the American military sunsets on Dec. 31, leaving them and their families vulnerable as violence spikes in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers’ plans to for an early recess could easily be scrambled by any number of scenarios.

Several lawmakers have also indicated they will use the remaining days of the session to make a last push for a handful of initiatives stymied by controversy. Outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has said she wants the long-awaited CIA torture report to be released publicly.

It’s not a great precedent to pursue this way, but that’s the position that we’re in.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., on the passage of the NDAA without an open amendment process.

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is also reviving her efforts to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, a measure to remove the adjudication of military sexual assaults from the chain of command.

Last week, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also said he would pursue the passage of bipartisan suicide prevention legislation. But even with support from both chambers and parties, time is short.

And a handful of lawmakers in the House and Senate have also said they will continue to push in the last days of the lame duck for an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against the Islamic State. Those members argue that the more than three-month-old military operation in Iraq and Syria against the terrorist group is illegal because it has not been authorized by Congress.

With Democrats seeing their control of the Senate expiring, the administration is pushing for more transfers from the military prison at Guantanamo, moving closer toward its closure. The Pentagon has approved a number of detainee transfers out of the prison for the coming weeks. The transfers have come under heavier scrutiny following the swap of five Taliban prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May and new allegations that released prisoners are returning to the terrorism battlefield.

As if that weren’t enough, the White House has said a replacement for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be picked shortly. But Republican lawmakers were quick to indicate that the confirmation of the president’s nominee will neither be quick nor easy. A Republican majority will likely preside over the confirmation next year. 

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