Reid 'Fills the Tree' to Block Iran Sanctions Amendment on Defense Bill

WASHINGTON -- A host of key amendments to the defense reauthorization bill will not be allowed when the spending measure comes up for a cloture vote on Wednesday, and Senate Republicans charge it's because Democratic leaders want to avoid a potentially embarrassing vote for the Obama administration.

"We will tomorrow turn to a defense authorization bill that's been handled in such a way that there have essentially been no amendments. This is obviously to protect the administration from having a vote on enhanced sanctions on Iran," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters after a closed policy luncheon on the Hill today.

"But it also disadvantages all the members of the Senate on both the Democrat and Republican side, so the effort, once again, will be to fill up the tree, prevent members from offering amendments, jam it through, centralize the power in the majority leader's office," he added.

That is especially irritating Republicans after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) detonated the nuclear option for President Obama's nominees and has been trying to shuffle as many of those votes through the upper chamber as possible before the Senate leaves for the holiday break at the end of the week. Republicans have been filling up much of the debate time allotted per nominee to bite back at Reid for the nuclear deployment.

McConnell noted that none of the nominees "were emergencies, instead of doing something like having amendments on the defense bill."

"So as we end the year, it's a tragedy the way the Senate is being run into the ground by basically one person. And I hope that one of the majority leader's New Year's resolutions is going to be to operate the Senate in a quite different manner. It's going to be hard to get the Senate back to normal. It's only been a few years ago under different leadership, when we were open for amendment, members got a chance to express themselves," he said.

"We got a great number of members now on both sides of the aisle who wonder why they're here. Work they do in committee is rarely, if ever paid attention to. No amendments are allowed on the floor. The power's all centralized in the office of one person. It's a big step in the wrong direction for our country, and it can really be changed essentially by the behavior of one person. This one person changing behavior can move the Senate back in a different direction."

Reid also filled the "amendment tree" on the Murray-Ryan budget agreement, meaning that no further amendments can be offered.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) moved this afternoon to allow amendments on the budget bill, but that went down 46-54.

"It's awfully hard to believe that in the great Senate… we have one leader of the Senate supported by his colleagues who says we don't want to take amendments because we don't want to take tough votes," Sessions said on the floor.

Sessions noted that the defense bill is a $500 billion expenditure. "A lot of people have ideas of how to approve that bill," he said. "We're not going to get a single amendment."

"It's contrary to our tradition, it's contrary to our heritage … where open debate and discussion are so important."

The amendments that won't see the light of day include an effort to get benefits and due recognition for the victims of the terrorist attack on Fort Hood.

Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) planned to introduce the Honoring the Fort Hood Heroes Act as an amendment to the defense bill, telling PJM last month, “I think we’re going to have broad support; we just haven’t had a vehicle to get this done."

The amendment would have stipulated that the Purple Heart should be awarded to service members killed or injured in the attack, and civilians killed or wounded should get the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom. Benefits would be the same for those killed or wounded in a combat zone, and post-traumatic stress disorder treatment would be covered.

"Sen. Cornyn believes he would have had a clear shot at getting his bill passed as an amendment to NDAA had the Majority Leader not blocked all amendments," Cornyn press secretary Jessica Sandlin told PJM this afternoon. "He will be looking into additional ways to apply pressure on the DoD to put political correctness aside and expedite the process to finally award the Purple Hearts to the victims of the terrorist attack at Fort Hood."

Also shoved aside by the Reid tree-filling is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) bill to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, an effort co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Gillibrand said Reid promised her he would allow it to come to the floor as a standalone bill next year.

Other amendments that were introduced to the defense bill before Thanksgiving include Sen. Roy Blunt's (R-Mo.) measure to appoint a special envoy for the purpose of promoting religious freedom among religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia, another by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to increase active-duty military pay by 1.8 percent, and one by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to exempt the POW/MIA recovery office's funding from the annual appropriations process.

Even though Reid promised to consider an Iran sanctions bill after the Thanksgiving break, the insistence of key members of his caucus to keep the pressure on the Islamic Republic has made the White House increasingly nervous.

On Monday, press secretary Jay Carney said "our view has been that Congress ought to wait until it is necessary, if it is necessary, to impose new sanctions, to pass new sanctions for a time when Iran either fails to meet its obligations on the preliminary agreement or fails to reach agreement with the P5-plus-1 on a comprehensive solution, our comprehensive agreement."

"And if Congress were to do that it would have the kind of effect that sanctions are meant to, and rather than if they were to impose or pass new sanctions now, which could undermine our unity internationally with the P5-plus-1 and cause problems and potentially scuttle the initial preliminary agreement," Carney added.

Negotiations were in the works last week to add sanctions language from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to the defense bill, but they fell apart mysteriously and suddenly as Reid filled the tree.

Given past sanctions votes and disappointment voiced by many Democrats over the Iran nuclear deal inked in Geneva, the administration faced a high possibility of a vote in favor of new sanctions.

"I've had my disagreement with the administration here," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC on Monday. "Look, sanctions brought the Iranians to the table. It's the same government. Rouhani is one guy but the supreme -- so-called supreme leader is running the show. They're a terrorist country. They're a country that doesn't believe in anything that we believe in. But sanctions brought them to the table."

"Good thing. We should talk," Schumer continued. "But the idea which the administration did in the initial agreement of reducing sanctions before they reduced their nuclear capability was a mistake. And I think there are many of us Democrats and Republicans working together."

Sen. Tom Coburn indicated Tuesday that he might block the defense bill with a filibuster.

“How many years has it been since we’ve had an NDAA with no amendments? It’s never happened. Here’s half of our discretionary spending, authorization for it, why would we shut off the right to have amendments?” Coburn said, according to Roll Call. “I’m not about to give up my right to offer amendments because somebody wants to get a bill through that hasn’t been fully vetted.”

After a closed policy luncheon today, Reid tried to convince reporters that his tree-filling was in the best interests of the upper chamber.

"I hope what we do is get back to doing legislation bill by bill. That's what we've done in the past. We haven't done it in the last few years because there's been too much obstruction," Reid said. "Otherwise, what's coming to us, as the Republicans continue this, we're just shoveling to the executive branch of government more power."