Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is taking flak from both sides of Capitol Hill — and both parties — over delays to defense policy legislation as the window narrows for lawmakers to negotiate and pass a compromise bill.
On Tuesday, the Democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, and more than a dozen Senate Republicans found themselves on the same page in criticizing Schumer over the delay in advancing the National Defense Authorization Act.
Smith told reporters that he is “extraordinarily frustrated” that the Senate has not passed the defense bill in more than three months since it was approved by the Armed Services Committee. The House, meanwhile, passed its version of the bill in September.
“I do think this an unforced error on the part of Schumer,” Smith said. “He’s the guy in charge. He’s the guy who’s decided not to bring it up.
“From a process standpoint, I can’t argue with the Senate Republicans on this issue,” he added. “There is no reason that this bill has not been put on the floor in the Senate.”
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are ratcheting up pressure on Schumer and criticizing Democrats for prioritizing social spending plans over a debate on the military legislation.
Thirteen GOP senators on Tuesday morning called on Schumer to bring the upper chamber’s defense bill to the floor immediately, significantly ramping up their attacks on Senate Democrats, who they argue aren’t taking China and other national security challenges seriously as long as the bill lingers without a vote.
On top of the short timeframe to ensure the defense policy bill becomes law, Republicans also warned the lateness of the bill threatens to shut rank-and-file senators out of the process.
“I have no idea why we don’t have floor time,” Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during a press conference on the bill.
“What we need now is for the Democratic leader of the United States Senate to let this bipartisan process work now as it has now for over a half a century,” added Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “And we call on Chuck Schumer today to give us floor time. Let the 100 members of the Senate act on one of the most significant pieces of legislation that we will consider this Congress.”
President Joe Biden did not send Congress his first budget request until late May, a logjam that held up congressional action on major policy and spending legislation until the summer or later.
The House passed its version of the defense policy bill in late September. The Senate has yet to act on its version since the Armed Services Committee approved the bill in July.
In the weeks since the blowout House vote, Smith has urged quick action on the Senate bill so that the two chambers can form a committee to hash out the differences before the end of the year, when many military special pay and bonuses and other authorities typically expire.
Smith said he has reached out to Schumer’s office to press them on the bill, but the response has essentially been “We’ll get to it when we get to it.”
“I called and asked. They told me to piss off,” Smith said. “I said, ‘OK, I want to talk to Schumer.’ They said, ‘No you can’t do that.’ So here we are.”
Democrats on both sides of the Capitol, meanwhile, are focused on landing a final agreement on a $1.75 trillion package to fund health care, economic initiatives and fight climate change. The proposal, which all Republicans are likely to oppose, is the top legislative priority Biden and congressional Democrats.
Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have in recent days linked talks on the social spending plan and inaction on the defense bill, attacking Democrats for increased domestic spending at the expense of a must-pass military policy bill that has become law each year for six decades.
“Any delay by Sen. Schumer really shows a lack of prioritization for this country’s defense, but it also shows a lack of seriousness about those threats that we’re facing,” added Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).
A spokesperson for Schumer did not respond to a request for comment on the Republican attacks, Smith’s criticism or when the NDAA might come up for debate.
McConnell initiated the broadside last week. The Kentucky Republican reupped the attack Tuesday, slamming Democrats on the Senate floor for “sleepwalking” into a jam on the NDAA while pursuing their domestic agenda.
Republicans, however, praised Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) for his work on the legislation. Inhofe said Reed has pressed the NDAA issue with Schumer, but has so far come up empty-handed.
“I have talked to him on a daily basis. He has told me that on a daily basis he approaches his leader and he has not been successful in getting it done,” Inhofe said of Reed. “He has done everything that he can do and he did not come back with a reason that this postponement has taken place.”
A bipartisan majority in the Armed Services Committee voted to endorse a $25 billion increase to the Pentagon budget for fiscal 2022 for a total of $740 billion, rebuking the proposal submitted by Biden. Lawmakers who back the boost say a larger budget is needed to keep pace with China’s military developments.
“We better not wake up and smell the roses, we better wake up and smell hypersonic missiles, because that’s a huge problem coming our way from China and Russia,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.).
The defense legislation typically isn’t finalized until late each year. But the delayed Senate debate is striking. Only three previous bills have commenced debate on the Senate floor at a later date.
After this week, the Senate is scheduled to be in session only one more full week in November. Senate Armed Services will also have its hands full as Reed and Inhofe attempt to quickly shepherd Adm. Christopher Grady’s nomination to be the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs through the Senate in the coming weeks.
Further delays in the Senate also siphon away time that House and Senate leaders and their staffs will need to negotiate and write a compromise defense policy bill. Both sides are now looking at workarounds to help smooth things over.
While Smith has criticized Schumer in recent weeks, the committee chair added that House and Senate Armed Services staffers are beginning to discuss their competing version of the defense bill to speed up eventual cross-Capitol talks while they wait for the Senate to act.
“We are talking about what is in the committee work that the Senate has done and a little bit of speculation about what they might do on the floor, but I’m not going to let their, how can I put this exactly — ineptitude might be too strong of a word, let’s just go with dilly-dallying — get in the way of us actually trying to accomplish important policy,” Smith said.
Lawmakers have other means of ensuring the bill’s passage if the regular process short-circuits. The Senate failed to pass its own NDAA in 2013 and 2014. Instead, the “Big Four” chairs and ranking members of the Armed Services panels negotiated a final bill outside of a formal conference committee process.
But that’s far from the preferred outcome, Inhofe said.
“All that does is shut out a lot of people. We want to open it up,” he said. “We want to give everyone a chance to participate, and the best way to do that is to get it on the floor.”
Still, with two months left, top lawmakers aren’t pulling the plug yet on one of the few sure things left in Congress.
“Obstacles are always thrown in our way and we pass the bill every year and we will find a way,” Smith said. “But it is frustrating.”