The Senate took up consideration of H.R. 2810, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, on Wednesday, and the Republican leadership had hoped to have been finished with their business by the end of the week. After all, the goal is always to have the bill passed before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. That’s unlikely to happen this year, thanks to the Senate’s inability to come to terms with the spending limits Congress imposed during the Obama years.

The NDAA is held up over disagreement on four amendments, including one from Sen. Tom Cotton, the Republican, Iraq War veteran from Arkansas. Cotton’s amendment would end the spending limits imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, better known as sequestration, beginning this year rather than 2021 as the law now stands.

Republican deficit hawks are reluctant to take away any spending limits, and Democrats don’t want limits removed without a guarantee that social programs will also get a boost.

A side trip through the AUMF

The proceedings  began positively enough for Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain. He gave Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky the opportunity to ask that the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force passed in 2001 and 2002 expire in six months. Such a move would have required Congress to pass new authorizations before the spring, or every military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan would have to end.

Rand failed; the Senate voted 61 to 36 to “table” the Rand amendment, effectively killing it. Only Senators Dean Heller of Nevada and Mike Lee of Utah broke with their leadership to join Paul in voting against tabling the measure. By Thursday afternoon, the senate had completed consideration of McCain’s package of amendments to the House bill and voted to invoke cloture, ending debate.

But debate on the whole bill wasn’t over.

spending’s impact on readiness

Sequestration has been the elephant in the room since the NDAA markup season began. As it stands, both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA blow past those limits, and by law, automatic spending cuts would kick-in regardless of the amounts authorized. Cotton’s measure, which has the president’s backing, is intended to address this.

McCain lays the recent training deaths, not just in the Pacific Fleet but in Army and Marine Corps exercises, directly at the feet of these budget cuts. On CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, McCain called sequestration “our failure over the last eight years to make sure our military is prepared, equipped, trained” for war. When budgets are cut in wartime, McCain said, the first thing to be cut is training. Cutting training erodes readiness.

McCain had earlier pointed to the fact that in the last three years, the number of service members killed in training exercises has been four times higher than those killed in combat. Sequestration is, he believes, literally killing service members. Sequestration and the inability of Congress to pass a regular budget, which hampers the military’s ability to plan long-term projects, are the two biggest reasons the military is facing a readiness crisis.

Sec. James Mattis told Congress in June that he was “shocked” to see how much readiness had eroded since he left the Marine Corps. He and the service chiefs have been beating the readiness drum for years now, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears.

The nation’s national debt stands at $20 trillion and is now more than the annual GDP of the nation. This presents its own long-term threat to national security, but the nation must address the immediate readiness crisis before avoidable tragedies like the USS John S. McCain’s collision become commonplace.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin