The Cable

McCain and Graham lash out at Levin over defense bill

The Senate is expected to take up the defense authorization bill next week, but top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services committee are promising to oppose the legislation due to language that it includes on gays in the military and the possible insertion of an amendment on immigration.

Every year, both parties agree to pass the defense bill, even while large parts of the rest of the legislative agenda go uncompleted. For that reason, it is often viewed by senators as a convenient vehicle for other legislation they want to move through Congress -- whether or not it is related to the military.

Last year, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), to the chagrin of Republicans, successfully added language expanding protections from hate crimes. This year, Democrats are expected to attempt to add the "American Dream Act," a bill that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrant students, to the defense authorization bill.

Committee Republicans are not happy.

"This is an all-time low for me being in the Senate and that's saying something," committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable in an exclusive interview. "The one area that has been kept off limits from partisan politics has been the defense of our nation. To say that you're going to bring up a defense bill and put the Dream Act on it ... to me is very offensive."

"Obviously it's about politics," Graham continued. "You're trying to check a box with the Hispanic voters on the Dream Act ... this is using the defense bill in a partisan fashion that hasn't been done before."

Actually, the defense bill has often been the subject of partisan wrangling. What is unprecedented, however, is that the bill could come to the Senate floor without the support of the committee's top Republican, John McCain (R-AZ).

McCain adamantly opposes the bill because it contains language that could lead to the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bans homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

"It authorizes the repeal of DADT before the study is completed," McCain told a gaggle of reporters in the Capitol Monday, referring to the Defense Department's ongoing analysis of the impacts of a policy change.

One sharp reporter pointed out to McCain that the actual language in the defense bill would only allow repeal after the study was finished, but McCain stuck to his story.

"It repeals the law, that's wrong. The service chiefs object to it and I object to it," he said emphatically.

He then lashed out at Levin for adding the hate crimes language to last year's bill.

"That established a terrible precedent, he was terribly wrong to do it, and I condemn him for it," said McCain.

The Cable caught up with Levin in the subway beneath the Capitol complex. He said he expected Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to file cloture on the defense bill this week, which would mean it would reach the floor early next week.

But Levin said that Democratic and Republican leaders were negotiating an agreement on how to handle the bill, including whether to allow a vote on the Dream Act as an amendment. He claimed that he didn't understand why McCain and Graham were so worked up.

"I'd love it to be on there, I'm in favor of the Dream Act. But that doesn't mean they can get an agreement to vote on it," Levin said. "If [Republicans] don't want an agreement, there won't be an agreement. Then we'll just have to try to do it after the elections."

Regarding McCain's remarks on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Levin said that was voted on in committee and McCain shouldn't oppose the bill just because he didn't like the outcome of one vote.

"They didn't like the outcome of some votes, I didn't like the outcome of other votes. Let's just get it to the floor and debate it," he said.

But Levin did admit that the complete destruction of the bipartisan comity that usually surrounds the crafting of the defense bill was regrettable.

"If anyone laments not having my ranking member support this bill because of one amendment which is highly relevant to this bill, I deeply lament it," he said. "I'm troubled by it, believe me."

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The Cable

Kerry on START: Let's vote on it during the lame-duck session

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry said today that there's not enough time to ratify the New START nuclear reductions treaty before the elections, but there should be a chance to pass the treaty when the Senate returns to Washington in November.

"I think the reality is... to push it in the next week or two would be a mistake, given the election. So let's just get it out of committee and hopefully set it up to do without any politics, without any election atmospherics, as a matter of national security when we come back in the lame-duck," Kerry said in an interview Tuesday. "That's what I'd like to see."

Kerry's comments match those of his GOP counterpart Richard Lugar (R-IN), who said Monday evening that he doesn't see any way the treaty could get the needed floor time before the Senate adjourns again in the beginning of October.

But his comments seem to contradict those of the treaty's lead negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemeoller, who said Tuesday morning that she still hoped the full Senate would act on the treaty in the next few weeks. The treaty goes into effect 60 days after both Russia and the United States ratify it, and the goal is to have it in effect by the end of the year, Gottemeoller told a group of defense reporters.

Regardless, few on Capitol Hill believe that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will spend precious floor time this month on the treaty. Even after the Senate returns following the November mid-term elections, there still might not be enough time to consider START, Kerry warned.

"If the lame duck session is a one week session, I would be surprised if anything but the most simplistic things pass. If there's a longer lame duck session, it's possible something larger and more sweeping could pass," he said.

Kerry said he needs only two days of Senate floor time, maybe three, to debate and then vote on the treaty.

He also said that he was open to supporting the resolution to be put forth by Lugar at Thursday's committee hearing, rather than the version he circulated early last week.

"Mine was put out as a discussion draft to elicit from them exactly the things that are not being talked about," Kerry said about his draft, which was first posted on The Cable. "We're working very closely together, but I'm certainly prepared to agree to a substitute [from Lugar] if it meets with our needs as well."

There was a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity going on Tuesday regarding the START treaty. Late Monday, Lugar circulated his latest draft, obtained by The Cable, as negotiations continued between the committee staff, various Senate offices, and the administration.

Treaty supporters are hoping to get as many GOP committee votes as possible and have been working hard to address the concerns of Republican senator who will vote on Thursday.

One of those GOP senators is Bob Corker (R-TN), who said Tuesday he will cosponsor the Lugar resolution on Thursday and vote in favor of the treaty at Thursday's committee session.

"I think we're moving in a very good direction," Corker told The Cable. "Based on what I know now, I certainly plan on voting it out of committee."

He predicted that when the treaty reaches the Senate floor, there will be other amendments and reservations put forth, so no final prediction could be made. But Corker said he was cautiously optimistic about the path forward.

Kerry said that when the treaty does reach the floor, senators should keep in mind that the Russian Duma is waiting to see what the Senate does before it acts on the treaty.

"President Medvedev said this to me personally, the Duma is waiting to see what happens here and how the treaty is treated in the United States," Kerry said. "That will have an impact on what they do just as their actions would have an impact on us. So I think we need to be sensitive to that."

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