In a bipartisan appeal, members of the Armed Services Committee have written Senate leaders urging that the 2006 defense authorization bill be brought to the floor for debate and approval after months of delay.
The letter, addressed to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), reflects mounting frustration on the committee about the bill's stalled status and rising concern among members that the congressional session could end without Senate passage of a defense authorization measure for the first time in more than 40 years.
The annual legislation, which sets policy for the armed forces, has been in limbo since July, when it was yanked from the floor to avoid attempts to amend it with controversial proposals. Republicans have insisted that before the bill can be brought back, Democrats must agree to limits on the number and nature of amendments.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the committee's chairman, said in an interview yesterday that agreement had been "pretty close" on a plan to allow 12 amendments by each party. But the major "stumbling block," he added, has come over two proposals that Democrats have refused to drop.
One would try to attach a provision mandating a presidential commission to investigate the military's treatment of detainees. The other would establish an independent commission to assess the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Warner acknowledged that the effort to impose constraints on what changes can be made in the bill during floor debate is "unique," but he suggested it is warranted, given the need to avoid tying up the Senate amid other pressing business.
In an attempt to get around the impasse, Warner seized last week on the Senate's consideration of the defense spending bill and filed the authorization bill as an amendment to that measure. But the Senate knocked down that move in a 50 to 49 vote, rejecting Warner's argument that the authorization legislation was "germane" to the spending bill.
The Senate went on to approve the spending measure, sending it to conference with the House version that passed in June. But the fate of the Senate authorization bill remains uncertain, with lawmakers expected to consider other options when they return Monday from a week-long recess.
"I'm very concerned because this could be the first situation in many, many years in which we do not consider and pass an authorization bill," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), an Armed Services Committee member, told a group of reporters yesterday.
Warner noted the particular importance of passing the authorization measure while the nation remains at war.
In its Oct. 7 letter to Frist and Reid, the full panel said: "The records of the Senate reflect that our committee has an unbroken record of compiling, obtaining full Senate approval and adoption of a conference report on every annual authorization bill for the armed forces since 1961. . . . We ask for your continuing support to have our bill to be called up as a freestanding measure before the end of the first session of the 109th Congress."