The U.S. Senate is nearing completion of a $447 billion bill authorizing defense programs for the next budget year beginning October 1. Senators are working through a series of amendments to the bill before they pass the overall legislation.
On Tuesday, the Republican majority defeated a Democrat-sponsored measure calling for the transfer of funds from the Bush administration's anti-ballistic missile program into homeland security and efforts to curb the global spread of nuclear material.
The sponsor of the amendment, Senator Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he is more concerned about fissile material, or as he put it "loose nukes", getting into the hands of terrorists than the possibility of a ballistic missile attack.
"Loose nukes" globally is the greatest threat that we face," he says.
The amendment would have cut $515 million from missile defense, a reduction that opponents said could throw the program off track.
"This amendment will spread uncertainty into this program," says Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The world will begin to say "Aha! America is not serious about missile defense."
Meanwhile, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, President Bush's presumed Democratic challenger for the White House in November, rearranged his campaign schedule to come to the Capitol with the intention of casting a rare vote on an amendment to increase veterans' benefits.
But Republicans put off action on the measure, sponsored by the Senate's top Democrat, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Senator Kerry was clearly not happy.
"Under the normal courtesies of an institution that runs on courtesy normally, it is absolutely consistent with the rules and traditions of the Senate that time might be made available to a minority leader to offer an amendment and for a vote to be ordered. But evidently this is not a normal time for those courtesies in the life of the Senate," said Senator Kerry. "I regret that, for the Senate, and for the country, and for veterans."
Republicans deny politics was involved in their decision to delay the vote.
The Senate could complete its work on the defense authorization bill as early as Wednesday. The House has passed its own version of the bill, and differences between the two measures will have to be reconciled before final legislation is sent to President Bush for his signature.
The legislation does not provide funding for the defense programs. A separate bill, a defense appropriations measure, does that.
The House passed its version of the appropriations legislation Tuesday, agreeing on more than $400 billion in Pentagon spending, including $25 billion for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate is expected to begin work on that measure as early as this week.