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Senate's nuclear option vote blows up defense policy bill

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the National Defense Authorization Act: "This [nuclear option] blew it up. It harms the ability and desirability of people to work together." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Senate's decision to invoke the "nuclear option" and limit Republican opportunities to use the filibuster had the side-effect of blowing up work on the annual Pentagon policy legislation the body was considering Thursday.

Senators debated the defense bill into the evening on Wednesday, but the work came to an abrupt halt Thursday morning when Democrats moved to change the rules of the Senate.

The move puts into doubt the fate of the National Defense Authorization Act, the one piece of legislation that has been signed by the president for 51 consecutive years.

"This [nuclear option] blew it up," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It harms the ability and desirability of people to work together."

Republican senators, miffed about the nuclear option vote, suggested the Senate might put off action on the defense bill until December, when the Senate returns from recess.

"The majority runs everything now, so you're going to have to ask them how we're going to do it," quipped Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who proposed the delay until after Thanksgiving

Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., one of three Democrats to vote against the filibuster rule change, has already warned the panel that there might not be enough time to consider the defense bill if it isn't passed by Thanksgiving.

McCain, a top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that the Senate may scrap its work on the defense bill and simply use a version the House passed earlier this year.

"They may — and I emphasize may — bring the House bill over and use that as a vehicle when they get back" from Thanksgiving recess, McCain said. "That's a decision that I don't think has been made yet."

The threat of the Senate not passing a defense bill drew an admonishment from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington, who called on the Senate to press on with progress on the bill.

"There are still pathways to passage for this vital bill. We urge the Senate to resume [work on the bill] as soon as they return from their Thanksgiving recess," they wrote in a statement. "Our colleagues in the Senate should remember their obligation to our troops and continue to work towards final passage."

The Senate decided Thursday to change the body's rules so that the confirmation of judicial and Executive Branch nominees -- excluding Supreme Court nominees -- would require only a simple majority vote rather than the current 60 votes.

Democrats supporting the move argued that Republican efforts to block the president's nominees have become obstructionist and unacceptable.

"The level of frustration on the Democratic side has just reached the point where it's just worth the risk," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I want for the remainder for my five-plus years to be able to get something done."

The defense bill was already stalled before the nuclear option drama unfolded on Capitol Hill Thursday, with Republicans and Democrats unable to to agree on how many amendments each side would be allowed.

Feinstein suggested that the delay caused by the nuclear option could "provide time to come to an agreement" on how to proceed with the defense bill.