Pay, Benefits, Budget Amendments Hang Up Defense Bill

June 10, 2016

Every year, Senate leaders want to get the annual defense bill finished early, but their success rate in recent years hasn't been good.

This year, the Armed Services Committee finished drafting the bill and got it before the full Senate in record time.

But this “must pass” bill has attracted over 500 amendments on everything from Guantanamo detainees to the titles of Pentagon officials.

Two major amendments posed immediate challenges.

One offered by Committee chair Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would add $18 billion to the overseas contingency operations (OCO), commonly referred to as the war-time account, to pay for a higher military pay raise and larger force levels, among other things. But some see this as a violation of last year's budget agreement, and others have problems using the OCO account (which isn't subject to budget limits) to get around spending caps.

Another amendment offered by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the committee, would add another $18 billion to non-defense accounts. The rationale is sequestration required equal cuts in defense and non-defense spending, so any exception should apply equally to both.

These are contentious enough that leadership filed for cloture on both amendments, and neither amendment received the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, meaning that debate can continue indefinitely.

Because of this standoff, it appears the additional funds won't be approved for either, mainly because of the general refusal of each party to allow a vote on the other party's amendment.

In addition to these two amendments, senators had hundreds more to sort through. As a result, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed a cloture motion on the entire defense bill. The Friday morning vote succeeded 68-23. 

Cloture usually limits not only debate time, but also puts restrictions on what kinds of amendments can be considered. In the past, this has meant limiting amendments to issues already covered in the bill, which could be used to block Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) concurrent receipt amendments, for example. In other cases, leaders have agreed to limit amendments to a specific number for each party.

It's not an easy issue. MOAA wants a defense bill passed without having to wait until late in the year. But we also hope to get votes on important amendments on concurrent receipt, the military pay raise, and housing allowance changes, among others.

We'll keep you posted.


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