Senate Republican leaders pulled the plug on the defense bill yesterday, rather than face a host of votes on base closings, veterans benefits and the administration’s detainee policy that could have embarrassed President Bush.
That decision came just moments after the Senate voted 98-0 to make sure that the Boy Scouts of America will be able to continue holding camping events on U.S. military bases. The vote was an amendment to the massive defense bill, which authorizes nearly $450 billion in spending for fiscal year 2006.
But then the entire bill came to a halt when Republicans pushed a cloture vote, which would have limited debate and made the contentious amendments out of order. The 50-48 vote to end debate fell 10 votes short of the 60 needed, and rather than allow a showdown with the president, Republican leaders withdrew the bill and went instead to a measure protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
“There are lots of roadblocks right now, barriers being thrown up, on a very important bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, on the floor. “I do look forward to coming back and looking at that bill and passing that bill.”
Democrats said it was about saving the administration from defeat and said Mr. Frist was choosing special interests over the troops.
“In the middle of a war, to pull down the defense bill and in order to get to the special-interest gun-liability bill, I think, would rub every single American who knew about it the wrong way,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Seven Republicans joined 40 Democrats and one independent in voting against cloture. They said they wanted to make sure the Senate addresses their issues, and the defense bill is their best chance.
One of the biggest fights is over American policy toward detainees from the war on terror. The policy now is set by the administration, but many members of Congress have become uneasy about that, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, had offered an amendment to have Congress authorize the conditions for detaining “enemy combatants.”
“I’m trying to make sure Congress gets on the same sheet of music as the administration,” he said.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has another amendment that would make Congress set the conditions and treatment of detainees. Both men voted against cloture, which automatically would have killed their amendments.
Another amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, would have delayed the ongoing military base-closing process until troops return from Iraq. Mr. Thune voted against ending debate because the cloture rules would have killed that amendment, as did Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi, and Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.
Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, also voted against cloture.
Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if either amendment is included in a final House-Senate version, but Democrats said they do not think he can do that in the middle of a war.
Mr. Frist’s office said he had to pull the bill from consideration in order to get other things done before the summer recess, which is scheduled to begin at the end of this week.
“If you’re serious about completing a bill, cloture is the first step in that,” said Amy Call, a spokesman for Mr. Frist. “There certainly will be a time and a place for these debates, and we’ll certainly have them.”
Mr. Levin said Democrats had offered an agreement to end debate today, the same time frame as cloture would have set, but Republican leaders rejected that.
He said Mr. Frist is just delaying the inevitable, since the Senate must come back to the bill before the end of the year and the same fights still will be brewing. He also said there’s a majority in favor of setting a policy for detainees, and that will pass the Senate at some point.