Image for Congress Sidetracked with Defense Bill, Immigration Ruling

While Congress faces deadlines for raising the debt ceiling, spending extensions and infrastructure investment, it’s also teed up to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the next fiscal year as well as a $3.5 trillion budget conciliation measure. The complications keep getting more complicated.

The NDAA, a popular annual piece of legislation that must pass, has become a magnet for amendments of all sorts. More than 750 floor amendments have been filed in the House that range from requiring tampons in all federal female restrooms to studying ticks as a disease-conveying weapon system. Rollcall called the potpourri of amendments a “story about America”. 

Meanwhile, the House is plastering together a budget reconciliation package that largely comports with the priorities of President Biden, but not his preferences for how to pay for the outsized package that Republicans and some moderate Democrats view as too large. The latest wrinkle is a ruling by the Senate Parliamentarian that immigration reform provisions are not germane to the reconciliation package, which represents a major setback for congressional Democrats who promised to muscle through a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Not all 763 filed NDAA amendments will be debated on the House floor. Some of them deal with defense, for example, an amendment to require congressional approval to start a war and limiting the ability of former Pentagon officials to become lobbyists. In addition to ticks and tampons, House members are expected to debate hot-button amendments to mandate military personnel be vaccinated and workplace diversity training 

The FY 2022 NDAA is a magnet for a wide range of amendments because it is a sure-bet piece of legislation to come up for floor debate. House and Senate leaders have concurred on a $778 billion spending level, which is $25 billion higher than Biden proposed and $37.5 billion more than the current fiscal year that ends September 30. The issue will be how and on what that $778 billion is spent.

A New York Democrat filed the tampon amendment and a New Jersey Republican submitted the tick amendment, which is tied to concerns that previous tick research led to an outbreak of Lyme disease. Workplace diversity training is a hot-button issue for both Democrats and Republicans, as the underlying bill contains provisions intended to boot white supremacists from military service.

Other sore subjects likely to be debated relates to Saudi responsibility for the gruesome 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, sanctioning US corporate sponsors of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and investigating the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. There also is a clump of amendments to block US collaboration with the Taliban and a couple to sequester the pay of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin until all Americans are rescued from Afghanistan.

Progressive Democrats submitted amendments to reduce overall defense spending, which have routinely failed to pass. Other serious amendments include limiting military force authorization to two years, removing a provision requiring women register for the draft and mandating Pentagon tests for service personnel exposed to “forever chemicals”.

The nonpartisan Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling on immigrations dashes Democratic hopes to loop in a partisan priority to the budget reconciliation procedure that is exempt from the Senate filibuster. An earlier ruling precluded inclusion of a $15 federal minimum wage.

A key element of the ruling is that burying immigration provisions in budget reconciliation would be subject to legal challenge, which could short-circuit the citizenship pathway for millions of undocumented immigrants. Republicans praised the ruling for stemming what Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called an “unprecedented gambit”. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham said securing the Southern US border should come first.

Some Democrats urged ignoring the ruling. New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez said, “The immigrant community has waited too long and worked too hard for the good of the country, and I won’t take no for an answer.” Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar said the Senate “can and should ignore” the ruling. There also were calls to fire Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough.

While these issues play out, Democrats are knee-deep in negotiations on the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package and how to fund a substantial part of it with taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. They also must engineer a plan to raise the debt ceiling without any Republican support before the federal treasury is penniless. And they must extend current spending levels before the current fiscal year expires September 30. The House has a self-imposed September 27 deadline to vote on the $1.2 bipartisan, Senate-passed physical infrastructure bill.