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August 4, 2015

NSA, Sex Assault and Iran on Tap During Defense Debate

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said the defense authorization bill will have only a week-long debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Levin said the defense authorization bill will have only a weeklong debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sex assault in the military, spying on U.S. citizens, Iran’s nuclear program and even the minimum wage may all try to hitch a ride on the Senate’s defense authorization bill, and they may only have a week to do it.

The bill, due for consideration in the coming weeks, is often one of the last legislative vehicles of the year for amendments, and it traditionally creates a political minefield for senators, both on issues related to the military and not. And the 2014 authorization is no exception.

Aides tracking the bill suggest that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could hold off on bringing the legislation to the floor until the week before the Thanksgiving break, using the holiday as a pressure point to force senators to wrap up work on the bill swiftly or risk not being able to leave Washington, D.C. on schedule.

“We have to be able to finish the bill in a week,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said. “There sure ought to be, because everybody’s for the same goal. We have about 25 provisions in our bill already. There [are] a number of new ones which we’re working on, additional ones.

“There’s so much common ground that we ought to be able to … put together something which reflects the common ground,” Levin, the manager of the bill, continued.

The problem, of course, is that those hot-button issues that are sure to draw attention both inside the Beltway and nationally: how to properly handle the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance program; sexual assault in the military; Iran sanctions; whether to finally close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; Republicans’ focus on the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya; and even whether Congress should raise the minimum wage for American workers.

Levin said it would be impossible to deal with all of those issues in the time allotted for the defense bill, but that won’t stop his colleagues from trying.

Here are the issues to look out for if and when leaders bring the measure to the floor.

National Security Agency

A range of controversies with the NSA has brought an increased level of scrutiny to the programs Congress previously authorized as part of the Patriot Act. The defense bill could be privacy advocates’ best, most public opportunity to air their grievances with the intelligence community’s approach to data collection.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. — long a proponent of increased transparency in the system and protections for citizens — said last week that he and his allies were looking at “all of the opportunities” to boost the chances of altering NSA practices. He specifically expressed concern about the government’s elevated response to reports that the agency spied on foreign leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when American citizens are having their information collected domestically.

“What I can tell you we’re doing is looking at every opportunity to build a bipartisan … coalition that can respond to law-abiding Americans who are saying why in the world are you talking about making changes in spying with respect to foreigners and not talking about protecting us law-abiding Americans,” Wyden said.

Sexual Assault in the Military

How to combat a rise in sexual assault in the military has been one of the most talked about issues this year, and it is likely to be the most emotionally charged debate of the defense bill process. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing an amendment that would take the prosecution of sexual assaults and other crimes outside the chain of command. Her measure could get the backing of more than 50 senators of both parties, but it will face a 60-vote threshold and divide Democrats the most dramatically.

Last week, Reid met independently with Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has been advocating for changes adopted by the Armed Services Committee that do not take sexual-assault cases outside the chain of command. Reid is still undecided on which language to endorse, as are No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Conference Secretary Patty Murray of Washington. And leadership aides conceded that they are putting considerable thought into how to proceed in debating such a sensitive topic on the floor, especially knowing that 15 to 20 Democrats could support the committee’s bill text over Gillibrand’s.

Iran Sanctions

Senate hawks would like to see stricter sanctions on Iran, even as the White House urged Congress last week to hold off on legislative action as negotiators from several countries, including the U.S., worked on a nuclear deal in Geneva.

But Senate Republicans passionate about the issue may not heed that call.

“If the Banking Committee doesn’t move, you can bet your life there will be an effort to impose new sanctions on the defense authorization bill,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

Benghazi

Graham also said that a group of Republicans would be looking to use the defense authorization debate to yet again bring up the administration’s handling of the 2012 attacks at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

He discussed a provision that previously had been introduced by Republican Ted Cruz of Texas in a separate bill.

“One, put a reward out on those who killed our folks at the consulate in Benghazi. There’s no reward for their capture, and the ring leader has been interviewed by three news outlets, and I don’t know why we can’t capture the guy. He’s hanging out at a hotel apparently,” Graham said.

Guantánamo Bay

Year after year, the issue of whether Congress should force the administration’s hand in closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay finds its way into debate on the defense measure. But aides tracking the issue suggest that after years and years of chipping away, lawmakers, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are close to getting the votes they need to close the prison.

Minimum Wage

Raising the minimum wage may not be directly relevant to the defense debate, but supporters may see it as an opportunity to get the issue on the floor. Reid has vowed to bring a minimum-wage increase up for a vote, but not necessarily as part of the defense authorization.

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