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."
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.