Capitol Hill conservatives allowed Democrats to strip the “Russell Amendment” out of the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 budget during conference negotiations after Vice-President Michael R. Pence and other members of the presidential transition team assured them that the incoming administration will restore protections for religion and conscience stripped by President Barack Obama.
“I’m confident we will see this brought to a complete resolution in the near term. There are tactical ways and then there are strategic ways, but I don’t think anyone on the opposing side of this issue is under any illusion that they somehow won,” Rep. Stephen D. Russell (R.-Okla.), whose amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act asserted that persons and entities doing business with the federal government had the same safe harbor as specified in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
Capitol Hill sources said Russell and other Capitol Hill conservatives were anxious, having to choose between a critical conscience protection and providing DoD with its funding, while troops were deployed to combat zones overseas — until they met with Pence and other individuals preparing for President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration.
When the subject of the Pentagon budget impasse came up, the vice-president-elect was asked for guidance and, according to a Capitol Hill source, Pence told the conservatives that the incoming administration would address EO 13672 and similar issues, so that freedom of conscience and religious practice was restored.
With those assurances, Russell told his colleagues he was satisfied and he consented to having his language pulled from the bill.
Russell proposed his amendment in response to Obama’s Executive Order 13672, issued in 2014, part of the president’s Year of Action, which banned federal contractors who make decisions on the basis of lifestyle or views on same-sex attraction. The executive order, which was never enforced, jeopardized arrangements whereby the Salvation Army provides millions of dollars worth of social services on Indian reservations and in cities, as well as contract chaplains for Catholic troops.
Sources familiar with the negotiations between House and Senate conferees told Breitbart News that throughout the negotiations that fashioned the single bill agreed to Wednesday all Republicans, especially Sen. John S. McCain III (R.-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the conference committee, held together to keep the Russell language in the bill. Democrats had also agreed to go along with the Russell language, but in late October Democrats led by Connecticut’s Sen. Richard Blumenthal threatened to hold up the Department of Defense’s funding unless it was taken out.
When the House and Senate passed different versions of the same bill, the differences are resolved “in conference,” a process that produces a single bill that must then pass each chamber before going to the president for his signature. There are no restrictions on the conferees, who are free to produce a new bill from scratch.
In the case of the Pentagon budget, conferees started meeting in late June, but the talks were often shelved as the congressmen and senators attended to their own campaigns, the presidential campaign, and their party’s national conventions.
A veto threat from the president, backed by a threat by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) that he would block a vote by extending debate with a filibuster, also hampered the conference process. The president vetoed the Pentagon budget for 2016 and forced Republicans to rewrite the bill to meet his demands.