Thousands of Afghan translators hoping to escape to safety in America may have had their dreams ended due to a Senate procedural fight on Thursday.
It culminated in a top Senate Republican accusing a colleague of having "blood on (his) hands" and left advocates scrambling to find an alternative path to pull critical foreign allies out of the war zone before enemy fighters can find them.
At issue is renewal of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, started six years ago as a way to protect foreign nationals who helped U.S. troops and officials during the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Only a few thousand have managed to navigate the bureaucracy to flee insurgent threats in Afghanistan and resettle in the United States. Becca Heller, director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said about 10,000 Afghan nationals are still pending consideration in the program.
And that total doesn't include their family members, who also face threats because of their loved ones' cooperation with U.S. forces.
The program will stop accepting new applicants at year's end if an extension is not authorized by Congress. House lawmakers did not include one in their draft of the annual defense authorization bill passed last month, and senators unsuccessfully tried to add on to their chamber's draft of the legislation Thursday.
But Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee blocked that bid over a separate fight with the Senate Armed Services Committee over his amendment to bar federal officials from detaining U.S. citizens indefinitely.
That fight stretches back several years, and top Senate Republicans are blocking a floor vote on that measure. Lee responded by blocking a series of other amendments in response, including the visa program renewal.
"I'm being told again and again and again to wait, to wait, to wait, to wait more," Lee said.
The comments infuriated Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who accused Lee of "literally signing the death warrants of some people who in their innocence decided they would help the United States."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. — who sponsored the visas amendment — called protecting foreign nationals a critical step to U.S. troops' future safety.
"What will we say the next time we want somebody to help when we need help in a country where our men and women are fighting, if they can look back and say you didn't keep your word?" she asked.
"This is our opportunity to continue to keep our word, to continue to make sure that those people who helped us in Afghanistan, who protected our men and women on the ground there, are able to come to the United States when they are threatened, when their families are threatened, and be safe."
Numerous Pentagon officials lobbied senators to include the program extension in the authorization bill. House members blocked adding the plan to their draft over larger concerns about immigration and administration of federal visa programs.
If senators can't find a way to get around Lee's objections before a final vote early next week, an extension will not be included in the annual defense policy measure.
Lawmakers can consider passing the extension as part of another measure or a stand-alone bill, but few pieces of legislation are expected to make it through Congress in coming months. Both chambers have less than 10 weeks of work scheduled between now and the November elections.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org