The Senate moved ahead with the annual defense authorization bill on Tuesday, and a final vote could come in the next couple days, a feat many consider a legislative accomplishment given that while Congress for more than 50 years has passed the bill that approves spending levels for U.S. military operations, it lately has come far beyond the Oct. 1 deadline for each fiscal year.
Typically, lawmakers have increasingly used the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, as a catch-all for personal defense passions, burnishing security credentials, and most of the defense policy debates. This was on full display Tuesday, the filing deadline for amendments in the Senate. At the top of the list for bill watchers was a language limiting interrogation techniques — a follow-up to last year’s Senate “torture report.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, got their “Reaffirmation on the Prohibition of Torture” amendment through on a 78 to 21 vote.
The McCain-Feinstein amendment would limit the CIA and other agencies to the interrogation techniques authorized in the Army Field Manual, which explicitly covers Defense Department. While Obama already issued an executive order banning torture early in his administration, Feinstein said, “Today’s vote puts the Senate on record that there can be no return to the era of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and that President Obama’s executive order should be enacted into law.”
McCain said, “This amendment provides greater assurances that never again will the United States follow that dark path of sacrificing our values for our short-term security needs.”
But Republicans — including the four senators running for president in 2016 — were divided, with some arguing it would hamstring intelligence agencies.
“The Senate vote on the McCain amendment was not about taking a stance on torture,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement. “What I do not support is telegraphing to the enemy our intelligence-gathering playbook, which the enemy can use to train their recruits on counter-interrogation techniques.”
Another bipartisan amendment which would enable the U.S. military to directly arm Kurdish fighters didn’t fare so well. The language, from Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, fell six votes short of the required 60 in a 54-45 vote. The amendment met early opposition from the White House and Iraqi government, who argued it would violate Iraq’s sovereignty. Similar proposals from the House have also sparked controversy.
Ernst emphasized ahead of the vote Tuesday that the legislation would affirm the administration’s current policy of supplying the Kurds, in consultation with the Iraqis. “The Administration is not required to act, but the amendment provides the President authorization to do so if he feels the situation warrants it to respond to ISIS, who is gaining momentum on the battlefield,” Ernst told Defense One in a statement.
“I am committed to supporting the Iraqi Kurds who are the key partners in defeating ISIS, maintaining an inclusive and unified Iraq, and providing key humanitarian assistance to nearly two million people,” she said. “The United States simply cannot afford any delays in arming our Kurdish partner on the ground at such a critical moment in the battle against ISIS.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., again fell short of the 60 votes needed to move forward with her amendment to reform the military justice system by stripping away the historic power of commanders serving as the “convening authority” in the chain-of-command over military court cases.
In a passionate speech on the floor, Gillibrand reminded that the military had promised progress, at the behest of President Obama. But the Pentagon acknowledges no progress has been made on retaliation for reporting the crimes, and Gillibrand noted the rate of sexual assault is at the same levels it was five years ago, with some 50 sexual assaults occurring each day in the military, on average.
The Senate voted down the amendment 50-49.
“Once again, a majority of the U.S. Senate supported a strongly bipartisan measure to finally hold the military accountable and create a fair, non-biased military justice system. Yet, once again, Senate filibuster rules protected military brass. Still, we will not back down,” Gillibrand said in a statement after the vote. “I continue to be inspired by the survivors who have come forward to demand reform. In their honor, we will continue this fight.”
The Senate could vote on the NDAA as soon as the next few days, and then the bill will go to the House. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., next wants to take up the annual defense spending bill, which Democrats have pledged to block from moving forward for what they argue is a misleading accounting of war funding. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, emphasized Tuesday, “It’s not a vote against the Department of Defense,” citing Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s opposition to the GOP’s “budget gimmick.”
He warned of another shutdown in calling for a bipartisan budget compromise, urging, “Let’s sit down in June and do this and not wait until the end of September, or god forbid the end of December, before we achieve this.”