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Republicans stall defense bill over amendment dispute

Must-pass defense policy legislation hit a fresh snag in the Senate on Monday as Republicans blocked the bill from advancing, with no clear path to resolving a partisan dispute over amendment votes.

An effort to cut off debate on the Senate version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act resulted in a 45-51 vote, well short of the 60 votes needed to move the legislation forward.

It’s the latest setback for the major defense policy legislation, which has little margin for error as House and Senate leaders aim to send a compromise bill to President Joe Biden’s desk before the end of the year. Debate on the measure had hit an impasse before Thanksgiving, when several Republican senators objected to amendment votes in protest of their proposals being left out.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Republicans for “halting the process” over a handful of GOP senators not getting votes.

“For a while now Republicans have claimed they wanted to pass the National Defense Authorization Act immediately,” Schumer said following the vote. “But a few moments ago, Republicans just blocked legislation to support the troops, support our families, keep Americans safe. Republican dysfunction has again derailed bipartisan progress.”

Ahead of Monday’s procedural vote, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to oppose advancing the bill further without progress on amendments, citing GOP calls for votes on measures such as sanctions over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany.

“Considering sanctions on the pipeline that fuels [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s encroachment over Europe, including provisions from Senator [Jim] Risch, that closely mirror language that the House added unanimously is certainly worth the Senate’s time,” McConnell said.

All Republicans except Maine Sen. Susan Collins voted to filibuster the measure. A handful of Democrats opposed advancing the legislation, while Schumer voted no in order to bring up a procedural motion to reconsider the vote at a later time.

The failed vote means senators will need to work out their dispute to advance the defense bill, though it’s not immediately clear what that compromise might be. It will also consume floor time during a week in which Congress also needs to clear another government funding patch to avoid a shutdown at midnight on Friday.

McConnell criticized Schumer on the floor for delaying debate on the bill for months after it was approved by the Armed Services Committee and for moving to cut off debate without additional amendment votes. But it was objections from GOP senators that scuttled votes on nearly 20 amendments from senators in both parties before the Thanksgiving recess.

A deal forged by Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma to hold roll call votes on an array of amendments collapsed the week before Thanksgiving as seven Republicans objected to protest the exclusion of their proposals.

Among the objectors, Risch, the top Senate Foreign Relations Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for a vote on their Nord Stream 2 sanctions proposal.

Despite bipartisan backing for punitive actions against Russia, the Biden administration opposes further sanctions on the pipeline, arguing it would alienate European allies.

With votes torpedoed, Democrats shelved the bill until after the holiday and set up votes to end debate and move to final passage this week, to be followed by negotiations with the House.

But the impasse remained Monday evening, as McConnell hit Democrats over the pipeline sanctions issue, noting similar language was adopted in the House defense bill that passed in September.

On the Senate floor, Reed lamented the impasse, noting the bipartisan process that produced the bill and saying the Senate “demonstrated irresponsibility” in holding up the bill, arguing the holdups were “not central to the purpose” of the bill.

“It will be done. … And we’ll have to use procedures that are appropriate to get it done,” Reed said. “But we just missed an opportunity to send a clear message that we support this legislation, we support our troops, we’re going to go to final passage.”

With the clock ticking, Risch, who objected this month in order to force a vote on his pipeline sanctions proposal, openly wondered about the path forward.

“I’m just astounded by where we are, on the cusp of December. I don’t know how this gets done,” Risch said. “What’s the path forward? I don’t know. I truly don’t.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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