Some of the amendments the Senate didn't consider on the defense policy bill last month could be making a comeback as lawmakers look for ways to push their proposals outside of the National Defense Authorization Act debate.
Senators proposed hundreds of amendments to the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, ranging from eliminating Meatless Mondays on military bases to changing the military justice system navigated by survivors of sexual assault. Only a handful were considered due to objections from one senator.
"It's not the way that we're supposed to conduct business here in the United States Senate. I've reached a level of frustration that I would consider changing rules so one individual out of 100 can't bring things to a screeching halt, and that's what's happening here," Sen. John McCain said during debate on the Senate floor.
One amendment McCain specifically addressed would increase the number of visas available to bring Afghan translators to America, since many are facing threats to themselves and their families because of their support of the U.S. military.
Consideration of the amendment was blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, according to an op-ed from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who introduced the plan.
Seeing that the chance of boosting visa numbers in the NDAA is likely gone, Shaheen is turning to another bill and said she is working to increase the number of special immigrant visas through the the fiscal 2017 spending bill for the State Department, which the appropriations committee approved last week, including a provision for 4,000 additional visas and a one-year extension of the program. It will still need to be considered by the full Senate.
"If Congress fails to extend this program, this could be a death sentence for many Afghans who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our military and diplomats," Shaheen said in a statement. "I'll continue to look at every opportunity to extend this important program before it expires. I'm determined to prevent Congress from betraying our allies."
A spokeswoman for Lee, who's amendment to study whether a draft is needed and would keep the Selective Service male-only, said he is considering a range of options to move the plan forward, including trying to pass it as a stand-alone piece of legislation, working with members of the conference committee to get it included in the final bill and raising his amendment on the defense appropriations bill that the full Senate still has to consider.
Appropriations bills dictate how money is spent, not changes in policy. As a result, some NDAA amendments, like one to change to military justice system from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., could be difficult to include in the spending bill, according to Justin Johnson, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
But amendments on things like programs, troop levels or readiness, all of which are primarily about dollars, are still "completely in play," Johnson said.
Lawmakers can also sneak policy provisions into the appropriations bill if they phrase it as a prohibition, Johnson said, like adding language saying no funding can be used for a certain program.
"Some of the issues on the table for the Senate NDAA, they could try to go back and see if there's a way to make it a funding prohibition of some sort," he said.
Challenges still remain, however. Any change must be offset with a pay-for, so any big moves, such as increasing the number of ships or aircraft the service will buy, are difficult without an increase in the topline, Johnson said.
There's also the problem of timing. Many of the amendments will likely not be considered for a second time, both because Senate leadership will not hold votes on a large number of amendments and because not a lot of time remains in the legislative year, including long breaks for August recess and campaigning in home states ahead of Election Day.
"Whether any of those amendments are even successfully debated is a big open question in my mind, but expect a lot of those same senators to try to come back and bring their issues up again," Johnson said.
The issue of how much time remains when lawmakers are in D.C. doing legislative work also means there are no more must-pass defense priorities that amendments could be tied to, and cuts down on the likelihood that any proposals could pass as a standalone.
"It seems like given the lack of legislative time in the calendar already, the bar is going to be pretty high for any of those to actually be successful," Johnson said.
While the House and Senate have each passed their version of the fiscal 2017 NDAA, there is still much work to be done in the conference process as the two chambers compromise on differences between the two bills, and some lawmakers whose amendments got nixed are hopeful negotiations will include their proposals in the final bill.
An aide for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the senator is hopeful the conference process will include a proposal from her that would have continued a pilot program that allows troops to freeze eggs or sperm before deploying in case of an injury overseas that harms fertility.