Senate takes up defense authorization, saves biofuels

The Senate surprised onlookers on Wednesday by opening floor debate on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill roughly six months after it was passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee and quickly striking a conservative-backed ban on biofuel funding.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains several controversial provisions that Democrats and Republicans are expected to fight over, including language requiring military detention for terrorism suspects and funding for Pentagon efforts to develop and purchase biofuels.

Quickly, Democrats won a victory by passing an amendment to strip language banning the use of Defense Department funds for biofuels. The ban is a pet issue for conservatives in Congress who accuse the Obama administration of using Pentagon funds, rather than the Department of Energy, to fund alternative energy programs. But Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has made biofuels a centerpiece of creating a “green fleet” of ships that demonstrated in a Pacific exercise this summer that they could run on something other than oil, though at greater cost. The White House has supported the program as a legitimate way to use public funds to kick-start a private alternative energy market, with real national security benefits.

But conservatives in the House, calling the program wasteful, added a funding ban to their version of the bill, which passed this spring. Then, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, surprised onlookers and angered Democrats earlier this year when he emerged from committee markup with two provisions containing similar language on his bill. Levin voted against the ban in committee, and aides grumbled at the time to reporters that they knew the ban would face a fight.

The fight was quick, it turns out, and the Senate adopted on Tuesday by vote of 62-37, an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) that strikes the original language of Section 313 from the bill.  

“Saving energy saves lives,” said Udall on the floor. Udall has led the Senate effort to strike the ban and promote the military’s biofuel programs. Udall also argued the military “must have the best technology in the world” and “flexibility” to adapt to the changing global landscape and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Udall said the biofuel ban was “unacceptable.”

“Our military is on the cutting edge technologically, but much of our fighting capability relies on foreign fossil fuels and decades-old power systems. That dependence has very real human and economic costs,” Udall said. “Today’s strong bipartisan vote affirms that we should allow our military leaders to continue to develop and use advanced alternative fuels in order to bring down costs and improvemission capabilities.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, has given three days for debate on NDAA, Levin said in his opening statement.

"And, by the way, that's all the time that we're going to have," Levin said. "The Majority Leader has made it clear that we just don't have more than three days. But we want people who have amendments, colleagues, senators who have amendments, to bring those amendments to us. We'll try, if we can't resolve them, put them in packages. If they need to be debated and voted on, that's fine. That's what we're here for."

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Robert Winn/Released