Tucked inside the massive defense policy bill now pending on Capitol Hill is a rewrite of terrorist watch lists, a host of new national park sites and a land deal that American Indians say threatens to destroy ancient burial grounds.
Meanwhile, several tax break bills speeding through Congress renew a controversial credit for wind turbines and end Medicare’s program to pay for penis pumps for senior citizens suffering erectile dysfunction.
Lawmakers were in year-end mode, looking to clear up business and clear out of Washington well before Christmas, dropping the curtain on what’s been a singularly unproductive Congress.
But some said the rush to go home led to approving special interest giveaways that never could have passed in normal circumstances.
The national parks and other land deals attached to the defense bill sparked a bitter dispute, with those on both sides of the aisle decrying a “land grab” being pushed as part of the bill to set benefit levels and military policy for U.S. troops.
“It is offensive that this bill would be used to fund congressional pork,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican.
Still, the legislation cleared the House easily on a 300-119 vote, and it heads to the Senate next week, where its passage is likewise assured, with lawmakers saying that supporting the troops is more important than delaying or rewriting the massive 1,648-page bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
“The bill represents a bipartisan, bicameral agreement that ensures that our troops and their families have the resources they need to protect our freedoms in an increasingly dangerous world,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Rules, which locked in the procedures to speed the bill through.
But dissenters registered their disapproval with the process.
“You would expect that in 1,600 pages, there would be both good and bad. But these so-called ‘Christmas tree’ pieces of legislation that lump totally unrelated issues into ‘must-pass’ bills such as the NDAA are a terrible way to run a government,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican.
He said he realized his protest vote was going to be swamped by his colleagues who voted in favor, but said he hoped he sent a message.
“Unless enough of us start objecting to the way things are done in Washington, then nothing will ever change,” he said.
Next up after the defense and lands bill is an omnibus spending bill, which will likely have even more special interest projects tucked inside it, and no chance for amendments, leaving lawmakers again with an all-or-nothing choice on legislation that will likely come in at about $1.1 trillion in spending.
Just as important as what’s on the must-pass to-do list are the items leaders have left off of it.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he will push off until next year a new debate about authorizing the war against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
And Congress will adjourn without taking any final action to rein in the National Security Agency’s phone-snooping program.
Also mired in uncertainty are bills to grant the federal government more powers over chemical plants and to extend the terrorism risk insurance program.
House GOP leaders have set a deadline of Dec. 11 to finish up and shut down for the year. Senate Democrats, who control that chamber, haven’t set a firm closing date yet, but it’s unlikely they’ll stay much beyond the House.
The House cleared most of its big business this week with passage of the defense policy bill, legislation to extend a series of expired tax breaks for tax year 2014 and a bill to create new tax breaks for disabled Americans.
That latter bill would cost several billion dollars over the next decade — money that was recouped through cuts elsewhere, including $444 million that comes from ending Medicare’s ability to pay for penis pumps.
Republicans said since Medicare is banned from covering erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra, it shouldn’t be paying for mechanical treatments for impotence. But some Democrats said cutting Medicare to pay for other programs crossed a dangerous line.
“Using Medicare savings to offset non-health-related programs sets a dangerous precedent,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, California Democrat. “While there are elements to this bill that both sides can agree on, this bill takes one step forward and two steps back.”
The sprawling defense bill produced the most debate — though a host of issues went without much public scrutiny.
The legislation maintains funding for the A-10 aircraft, which the Pentagon says is outdated but maintains a strong following among rank-and-file troops and has powerful bipartisan backers on Capitol Hill.
The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is maintained without any changes, while the bill does give a two-year lease to President Obama to equip and train Syrian rebels. And the bill rewrites the terrorism lists to carve two Kurdish groups out, making it possible for the U.S. to arm them for purposes of fighting the Islamic State terrorists.
Most controversial were the lands provisions, which took up 450 pages of the defense bill.
Backers said lands provisions have been tucked inside the defense policy bill in the past, so it was OK to do so again. And they defended the final deal, saying it streamlined the process for potential oil drilling on federal lands, and saying the new parks created all have strong local support.
But opponents said one project in particular was offensive: a deal to allow a massive copper mine in Arizona, which the Apache say will devastate their sacred grounds, which are held in trust by the federal government.
Opponents said the mine deal never even came to the House floor as a standalone because backers knew it would be defeated. Instead, it was buried in the back of the defense bill — a move that happened late Tuesday night, less than 48 hours before lawmakers were told to vote on it.
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and co-chairman of the Native American Caucus, supported the defense bill but said he wasn’t happy with the mine provision being added, and said he doubted it would have passed as a standalone.
“We really have the rules, in a sense, thwarting the majority opinion in the Congress,” he said.