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​Then-Army Secretary (now Defense Secretary) Mark Esper answered questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2019. Defense Department photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

Lawmakers are running low on time to agree on a 2020 defense policy bill by the end of the calendar year, an issue that could be made worse if Congress goes forward with presidential impeachment proceedings.

The Senate only has about three weeks of scheduled legislative days left in 2020, and the House has about two weeks.

“Congress has a lot on its plate,” a staffer assigned to the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a Nov. 3 email. “The Senate’s time could be devoted entirely to impeachment in December and likely well into January, leaving no room for legislating.”

The aide laid out a 17-day timeline to get the defense policy bill to the House and Senate floors:

  • On day one, lawmakers would reach a deal.
  • On days two and three, members and staff would hold their final meetings on consecutive days.
  • On day four, Congress would resolve remaining issues with the deal.
  • On day five, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees would review the final report and submit it to the Congressional Budget Office to determine its financial impact.
  • No further steps on day six.
  • On day seven, lawmakers would then receive the final bill.
  • On day eight, CBO and lawmakers would sign off on the language.
  • On day nine, lawmakers would file the bill report, which offers more details on information in the legislative text and discusses how the chambers bridged their differences.
  • No further steps on day 10.
  • On day 11, the House Rules Committee would meet to ensure the bill can move forward.
  • On day 12, the House would debate and pass the bill.
  • On days 13-17, the Senate would consider the bill.

“If conferees reach a deal the week after the House’s Veterans Day recess (i.e. Nov. 12), realistically, a bill could not be brought to the floor until the first week of December, at the earliest,” the aide said.

The timing is key because earlier program- and personnel-related authorizations are set to expire. Congress is usually able to renew them by the end of the year.

“Of the five times an NDAA was enacted in the next calendar year, both bodies of Congress cleared a conference report in the preceding calendar year,” the aide said. “Three of the years, the president simply did not sign the bill into law until the new year.”

Twice—in fiscal 1996 and 2008—the president vetoed the original conference report, requiring changes. But final bills were enacted by Feb. 10 both times.

“That would be a challenge this year if impeachment proceedings persist into January,” the aide said.

As of Nov. 3, the "Big Four"—the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees—have met seven times since August, the aide said. Their majority and minority staff directors, known as the "Little Four," had met 20 times.

SASC Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) in late October filed a "skinny" draft NDAA that could pass by Jan. 1 as a stopgap measure before lawmakers agree on a full bill. Other key players have indicated that legislation would not have much traction to move forward.

The annual NDAA typically passes in bipartisan fashion before the end of the calendar year. This year's talks have been rockier due to differences over funding for a wall along the southern US border, nuclear weapons policy, the creation of a Space Force, and more.