GOP senators attack top Democrat for defense bill delay

AP News
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Posted: May 25, 2016 4:18 PM
GOP senators attack top Democrat for defense bill delay

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican senator angrily denounced the Senate's top Democrat Wednesday for delaying debate on defense policy legislation, calling Minority Leader Harry Reid's leadership "cancerous" and accusing him of holding up the $602 billion bill to preserve his "sad, sorry legacy."

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas also slammed Reid for saying the bill was crafted "behind closed doors and in secret sessions" by the Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Reid said senators needed more time to examine the more than 1,600-page bill before voting on it.

Other Republican senators also criticized Reid for holding up the bill, but none as harshly and personally as Cotton, who served on active duty as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan before being elected to Congress. Cotton, 39, is the Senate's youngest member. He's clashed frequently with the Obama administration on national security issues.

"We're delaying (the bill) for one reason only: to protect his own sad, sorry legacy," Cotton said of Reid in a verbal assault unusual for a chamber that reveres decorum. He also called Reid's accusation that McCain wrote the bill in secret an "outrageous slander."

"The happy by-product of fewer days in session in the Senate is that this institution will be cursed less with his cancerous leadership," Cotton said of Reid.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he shared Cotton's frustration. "Why is the minority leader filibustering this important bill?" he asked.

McCain called Reid's delay "deeply regrettable." He said the Armed Services Committee voted two weeks ago in favor of reporting the bill to the full Senate by a margin of 24 to 3 with all 12 Democrats on the panel backing the legislation. The full committee met privately to assemble the bill, a procedure known as a mark-up in Senate parlance. The vote also was conducted out of public view.

McCain also said lawmakers have had ample time to review the legislation.

But Reid, a Nevada Democrat, refused to budge, which means the Senate's consideration of the bill may now be delayed until early June when the Senate returns from a weeklong break. He also raised objections to McCain's plan to seek an increase of as much as $18 billion in defense spending, saying that domestic programs also are in dire need of more money.

"Republicans refuse to provide the needed funding to fight the Zika virus, to stop the plague of opioid abuse, to help repair the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, or to provide additional funding for local law enforcement, our intelligence agencies and our first responders," Reid said. "That's just wrong."

Reid's spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman, released a statement highlighting instances when McCain and other Republicans have demanded time to read the contents of lengthy bills before being required to vote on them.

Orthman said that the Republicans wanted "to jam (the bill) through and rush out the door to a 10-day recess — one of the many recesses the Republican Senate is taking on their way to working the fewest days of any Senate since 1956."

Overall, the defense policy bill the Senate will take up provides $602 billion in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 for the Defense Department and nuclear weapons programs managed by the Energy Department.

The legislative package prohibits the Obama administration from transferring detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, requires women to register for a potential military draft, and proposes numerous changes to the military health system to improve the quality of care.

McCain and other senators said they also will seek to preserve a program that issues visas to Afghan civilians who assisted the American-led coalition as interpreters, firefighters and construction workers so they can resettle in the United States.

The top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, has warned that these workers are viewed as traitors by the Taliban for siding with the coalition and are in danger of being harmed or killed if Congress cancels the visa program.

But critics of the program have said it could cost as much as $446 million over the next 10 years and could lead to an exodus of talented, educated Afghans from a country in need of their skills.

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner