The Cable

Defense bill stalls as Republicans and Democrats blame each other

Every year, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is the one bill that gets significant floor debate and legions of amendments before being passed, but this year could be different. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) are fighting over the issue now.

Reid actually tried to bring the NDAA up for debate on Saturday, Sept. 22, at 1:40 in the morning, after the Senate had discharged all of its business and well after almost all senators had left town for their pre-election recess.

Senate Minority Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected to Reid's move because Reid wanted unanimous consent to structure the debate with limited amendments and because Kyl couldn't check with his caucus, as almost all senators had left the chamber.

McCain wants open amendments, as has been the practice in the past. McCain's office accused Reid of calling up the bill just to be able to say he gave Republicans the chance to debate the NDAA, even if that chance came in the middle of the night when no one was around.

"This was nothing more than a cheap procedural ploy to divert blame for the Senate's failure -- for the first time in a half-century -- to debate and pass the most important piece of national security legislation that Congress considers," a McCain spokesman told The Cable.

"Ever since the bill was reported out of the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, Senator McCain has gone to the floor time and again asking Senator Reid to bring the NDAA to the floor for debate, as has been the Senate's practice for 50 years. For four months, Senator Reid has refused these requests, and the Senate under his leadership has been declared the least productive since 1947," the spokesman said.

"So literally in the dead of night -- at 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning and after the last vote when all but a few Senators had gone home -- Senator Reid puts forward this gambit to ask for a Unanimous Consent agreement to move to NDAA with limited amendments at some unspecified time during the lame-duck session after the elections," the spokesman said. "As Senator Kyl correctly pointed out that morning on the floor, Senator Reid intentionally posed this request -- which requires Unanimous Consent from all 100 senators -- after the Senate's business was essentially done and most senators had gone home. Even by Senator Reid's standards, this was not a serious attempt to address this critical legislation."

In the past, the bill has become the vehicle for legislative items of all shapes and sizes, such as legislation increasing penalties for hate crimes, because it is the most likely bill to be completed before year's end and is sure to pass.

After Reid tried to call up the bill and limit debate to only "relevant" amendments, Kyl decried the tactic and said Reid was ignoring the fact that McCain and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) had been working on an agreement to move the bill.

"Everybody knows that you can't get unanimous consent of your colleagues when they're all gone at 1:40 a.m. in the morning without any advance notice that the request was going to be made," Kyl said. "We don't know what our members would agree to, whether they would agree to limiting this to relevant amendments or not... What mostly bothers me is the implications, therefore, that the leader's all for taking it up and it's Republicans that are objecting."

Reid is indeed arguing that Kyl's objection means that Republicans are in fact holding up the bill and that the GOP has been holding up the defense bill for six months. A Democratic Senate leadership aide told The Cable Monday that Democrats intended to point to Kyl's objection to argue that the GOP is holding up the defense bill.

"It's odd that Republicans would lament the Defense Authorization bill's status when one of their own leaders objected to Senator Reid's request to take it up and pass it on Saturday," the aide said. "Senator Reid has been telling Senator McCain and others for over two months now that he'd bring Defense Authorization to the floor once Republicans agreed to actually debate the bill and forego irrelevant amendments. For over two months, his offer has been rejected. Saturday made it clear yet again: Republicans would rather play political games than advance important legislation."

The Cable

Top Dem: No evidence former Gitmo detainee was involved in Benghazi attack

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Monday that the Obama administration has not found any evidence that a former Guantánamo Bay inmate was involved in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) emerged from a classified briefing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Sept. 21 saying that administration officials had discussed Sufyan Ben Qumu, who was released from Guantánamo into Libyan custody in 2007, as a "person of interest" in the Benghazi investigation. But today in a conference call organized by the left-leaning National Security Network, Smith clarified that he had heard nothing directly tying Ben Qumu to the Benghazi attack.

"All I meant was that the person I mentioned has known al Qaeda affiliations and was in Libya. And really, that's it," Smith said. "Whether or not he was directly involved with the people engaged in the attack, there's no evidence of that."

Smith said the Libyan government had been quick to condemn the attack and help with the investigation. But he slammed Republicans for referencing the Ben Qumu rumor and other reporting about the attack to criticize the administration's handling of the crisis.

"It is fairly disturbing the number of Republicans who have leapt to erroneous conclusions about what this means and have missed no opportunity to bash on the president rather than try to find a common approach to this," he said. "That has been extremely unhelpful."

Former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said on the call that he had not yet started work on the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that Clinton appointed him to lead to investigate the Benghazi attack.

"As far as I know no other members have been appointed and obviously the process has not yet begun," Pickering said.

The ARB will have five members, four appointed by Clinton and one appointed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to a senior State Department official. The board will investigate, "the extent to which the incident was security related; whether the security systems and security procedures at that mission were adequate; whether the security systems and security procedures were properly implemented; the impact of intelligence and information availability; and  such other facts and circumstances which may be relevant to the appropriate security management of the United States missions abroad," according to the law that established the board's mandate.

By law, the board must be convened within 60 days of the incident. Such panels typically take an average of 65 days to complete their work, and Clinton must submit the findings to Congress within 90 days of receiving them. According to that timeline, the board would issue its report in January and Congress could receive it as late as next April.

Both Smith and Pickering emphasized that they did not believe that time had run out to convince Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapon, and both argued that increased U.S. military involvement in Syria would only inflame the violence in the country.

"The situation in Syria is horrific. It is a full scale civil war," said Smith "It's a matter of whether or not there is an option that would make the situation better and reduce the violence in Syria."