Defense bill stalls in the Senate

The Senate is still struggling to move forward with a defense authorization bill, dimming the chances that the body passes the bill before they go home for Thanksgiving.

At issue Wednesday evening was whether senators would be able to offer any amendments they want to. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., looking to speed along the bill's passage, wants to limit the votes.

Lawmakers spent much of the afternoon Wednesday debating two competing amendments on reforms to the way the military prosecutes sexual assault that has pitted two of the Senate's Democratic women, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, against each other.

Gillibrand is leading the charge to put the decision to prosecute sexual assault into the hands of military lawyers, while McCaskill would make other reforms but leave the decision to prosecute an assault within the chain of command. Gillibrand has locked up at least 50 supporters for her amendment, including Reid, but McCaskill has the backing of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and top brass at the Pentagon. And, most importantly, even though Gillibrand has at least 50 backers, amendments to the defense bill must get 60 votes to pass, a number all agree will be difficult to achieve at best.

Supporters of McCaskill's approach argue that taking the decision to prosecute out of the chain of command will make it harder for commanders to maintain control over their units.

"You throw the military justice system into chaos; you take the commanders' responsibility away," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during the days' debate.

But Gillibrand argues something must be done. "The bottom line is really simple: The current system oriented around the chain of command has been producing horrible results," she said.

Gillibrand supports McCaskill's reforms, which include taking away commanders' ability to overturn a conviction, requiring the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of any individual convicted of committing a sexual assault, and eliminating the "good soldier" defense. She just doesn't think they go far enough.

There also could be some last-minute hitches over the amount of spending contained in the bill that could re-expose some divides in the GOP. A fresh round of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester - originally set into motion during last year's fiscal fights - is scheduled to hit military in January, slashing 10 percent, or more than $50 billion, from the Pentagon's budget.

A number of defense hawks like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and top Defense Department leaders have argued that the spending cuts are harming the military's readiness. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has sought to delay the cuts, said earlier this week that the budgetary uncertainties and cuts are "crippling the people who are vital to our security, our men and women in the military."

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed a version of the bill authorizing $625 billion, well above the cap set by the sequester. That could raise problems with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said on CBS' "Face the Nation" last month that the "bottom line" of ongoing budget negotiations should be not to break the spending caps. National Review Online reported that he also appeared at a closed-door meeting of the House GOP to urge them to preserve the budget cuts.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is part of a group of lawmakers negotiating a budget resolution that will avoid a repeat of the October government shutdown, is one of those lawmakers who thinks Republicans must hold firm on spending caps. "I'd like to give a caution about rumors that we hear about sequestration, that there'll be compromise on sequestration so we can spend more on defense," he said at the group's most recent meeting. "Compromising on sequester for more money for the military I think is shortsighted." He said at an earlier meeting that the Defense Department is not immune from wasteful spending that could be targeted to cut their budget.

The lawmakers might agree to a deal that gives the Pentagon back some of its money by cutting in other places, but that will require Democrats and Republicans to come to a larger agreement about where that money should come from, a central debate in budget talks.

If lawmakers do not find a way to resolve their disagreements on the amendment process soon, they will be unable to finish the defense authorization before the weeklong Thanksgiving break.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.