WASHINGTON – House leaders are holding up action on a defense policy bill unless unrelated measures on immigration and court security are attached.
The demand leaves uncertain whether Congress will pass the bill — which authorizes military pay raises, weapons spending and research programs considered vital to national security — before the budget year starts on Oct. 1. Lawmakers are in a last-minute crush to pass several top-priority bills before leaving at the end of the week to campaign for the Nov. 7 midterm elections.
The House and Senate last week were nearing a deal on the 2007 defense bill when House Speaker Dennis Hastert decided it should become a vehicle for the immigration and court security legislation.
The immigration measure, passed in the House last week by a 328-95 vote but not approved in the Senate, would make it easier to detain and deport illegal immigrants. Hastert also wants to move a separate proposal boosting protection of judges after the family of a federal judge was killed in Chicago.
"The speaker will not move the bill unless these two security items are added to the measure," said Hastert's spokesman Ron Bonjean.
Senate Democrats, including Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., support tightening court security. But the House-passed version, which would allow a judge to carry a concealed weapon, has cooled their support for the measure. Senate Democrats also oppose aspects of the immigration bill, which has drawn fire from immigration rights groups.
"Hastert has chosen the last hour of the last week of the session to begin playing games with a bill that supports our troops," said Durbin's spokesman Joe Shoemaker.
The House approved its defense authorization bill May 11; the Senate passed its version of the bill on June 22. Since then, the two sides have been working to resolve the differences in their bills.
Late last week, the two sides were close to resolving the last major sticking point — a House-backed provision that would lift policy restrictions on military chaplains when praying at secular events. The Senate opposed the measure.
The latest dispute between Hastert and Senate Democrats over the defense authorization bill comes as both chambers are facing a jam-packed schedule for their last week in session. The House and Senate this week plan to vote on legislation covering how terrorism trials and interrogations are conducted, as well as a separate measure authorizing the president's terrorism surveillance program.
Also awaiting a floor vote is the defense appropriations bill, which sets Pentagon spending limits and is considered a companion bill to the authorization measure. The House and Senate concluded their conference negotiations on the defense appropriations bill last week.