WASHINGTON — In a gambit to pressure Republicans into a larger budget deal, President Obama vetoed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday over what he called a Republican "gimmick" to fund defense — the use of a wartime account known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).
“I’m going to be vetoing this authorization bill, I’m going to be sending it back to Congress and my message to them is very simple: let’s do this right. We’re in the midst of budget discussions,” Obama said in an Oval Office signing ceremony. “Let’s have a budget that properly funds our national security as well as economic security, let’s make sure that we’re able in a constructive way to reform our military spending to make it sustainable over the long term."
Acknowledging his responsibility to keep the military properly funded, Obama said the bill “does a number of good things," but "falls woefully short in key areas." Chiefly, it keeps in place the sequester and "resorts to gimmicks that has not allowed the Pentagon to do what it needs to do," he said.
The president and Democrats have opposed the 2016 NDAA because it supports a $38 billion plus-up to defense through OCO, which skirts Budget Control Act caps. Meanwhile, Republicans claim a veto not only sends the wrong message at a time when the US faces multiple national security dilemmas, but it endangers the bill’s policy provisions, particularly those aimed at acquisition reform.
The chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas — held a news conference Tuesday with 12 members of Congress who served in the military. They vowed to press ahead with a vote to override the veto, though it appears not to have the votes to succeed.
“In all my years in the United States Senate I have never witnessed something so misguided, cynical and downright dangerous than vetoing the defense authorization for reasons that have nothing to do with defense,” McCain said.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, said the veto was symptomatic of the US “losing our voice and leadership” in world affairs.
“It’s extremely disappointing that with all this unrest in the Middle East, the president would even entertain the thought of vetoing the NDAA,” Ernst said.
As the 2016 NDAA’s proponents like to note, the bill does not appropriate funding, but sets policy, creating authorization to spend on a wide range of acquisition programs across the services. The bill also contains measures that authorize lethal aid to Ukraine, banning torture, reform to troop pay and benefits, and limiting the president’s ability to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
Democratic leaders have condemned the workaround as detrimental to the federal budget deal they are seeking with Republicans, one which eases sequestration budget caps and matches any defense increase on the non-defense side.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, reiterated his support of the veto. He said the OCO workaround “papers over the defense-funding shortfall caused by sequestration,” prevents the military from long-term planning and maintains sequestration for non-defense programs vital to national security.
Though some Congressional Democrats broke ranks to vote in favor of the NDAA, enough have opposed the bill that it appears the veto will be sustained. The Senate voted 70-27 to pass the bill, enough to override a veto, but the House vote count of 270-156 would not be enough.
The two chairmen have repeatedly said they don’t have a backup plan for the authorization bill. Any revised measure would depend on a larger budget deal between Obama and Republican leadership.