Time Running Out for Defense Bill

Capitol in fog.

A historically unproductive Congress is running out of days this calendar year to approve the defense budget.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., initially wanted to pass the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act before Thanksgiving. The House has already approved its version of the legislation, which sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

But the bill was delayed in the Senate amid a rash of amendments, including a controversial provision to remove the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command. With the chamber on recess this week, the window is closing to muster the votes necessary to end debate and send the legislation to a conference committee to reconcile differences between House and Senate.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has previously said senators "will only have days, not weeks, to complete it." His counterpart in the House, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., has said "time is running short to reach an agreement this year, but it has not yet run out."

The Defense Department for fiscal 2014 requested $527 billion for its base budget and $79 billion for the war in Afghanistan. The spending plan doesn't take into account automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, which are set to slice about $52 billion from the budget after Jan. 1.

The House in mid-June passed an authorization bill that included the Pentagon's base budget request and $86 billion for war funding. The Senate committee approved a version of the legislation that included the same amount for the base budget and a war budget of $81 billion.

After a 16-day government shutdown in October, lawmakers remain at an impasse over taxes and spending and haven't passed a full-year budget.

Congressional budget negotiators led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are reportedly working on a deal to temporarily replace the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions for the next two years, but nothing has been finalized.

They have until Jan. 15 to reach an agreement. That's when the government's short-term funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, is set to expire.

If lawmakers extend the resolution for the rest of the year, the Pentagon's base budget would total about $496 billion, which is about $31 billion less than the initial request. However, because that's higher than the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, after the New Year, the budget would be automatically reduced by another $21 billion to about $475 billion.

It has been a record-setting year of inactivity for lawmakers. Congress enacted fewer than 60 laws this year -- far less than the 88 enacted in 1995, the previous low for the period after World War II, according to a review of congressional records by The Washington Post.

The Senate is scheduled to reconvene on Dec. 9.

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