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September 4, 2015

Defense Policy Bill Likely Thanksgiving Appetizer

Just before senators head home to consume turkey, yams and apple pie, they seem poised to reprise a “family tradition” of taking up the defense policy bill.

But like any good family gathering, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said to expect a few good fights.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘For 52 straight years, the Senate has passed the defense authorization bill!’ It’s kind of a family tradition here that we do bring it up, and I’m hoping that will create a more positive environment,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters.

There’s already discussion that the ongoing controversy over the National Security Agency’s activities could make for interesting floor debate. The Senate’s Judiciary and Intelligence panels are on track to again take different approaches to foreign intelligence gathering, with the Intelligence Committee generally siding with the executive branch’s view of the need for more expansive powers.

Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Monday that she plans to undertake a major review of U.S. intelligence activities.

And Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the Senate version of a much-anticipated overhaul Tuesday.

“The government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood. It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community,” Leahy said in a statement. “Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough.”

Durbin, a longtime proponent of more transparency and oversight when it comes to the NSA, conceded that there was a concern that the Defense authorization would be ripe for intelligence-related amendments or other “mischief.”

“Within that bill are some pretty controversial issues: the future of Guantanamo, the Levin-Gillibrand argument over sexual harassment. This is not going to be an easy bill, but let me just tell you, from my point of view, I’m anxious for us to actually legislate,” Durbin said. “In the last six weeks, aside from reopening the government and renewing our national debt, which was essential, our crowning achievement was the strategic Helium reserve.”

Durbin’s comments indicate that the issue of how to address military sexual assault legislatively remain unresolved.

Sen. John McCain largely echoed Durbin’s sentiment about what might come up on the defense measure, suggesting a pre-Thanksgiving free-for-all.

“I think there’s going to be debate on NSA. I think we’ll probably be revisiting Guantánamo,” the Arizona Republican said. “Since it’s the only train that leaves the station, you’re going to see some spirited debate on a lot of issues, but the key to it is to start voting on amendments. Don’t wait, you know, until Thursday night.”

Of course, not moving forward on the Defense authorization might not be all bad for Durbin. As chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the absence of an authorization would actually give him more clout.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Durbin joked in response to that suggestion.

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