WASHINGTON — The US Senate voted Wednesday to approve the 2016 defense policy bill, but President Obama is expected to veto it because of language supporting a workaround that funds defense using the overseas contingency operations account.
The bill creates authorization to spend money on a wide range of acquisition programs across the services, and contains measures meant to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine, overhaul of the military retirement system and reauthorize a host of military pays and benefits.
Wednesday’s Senate vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) tallied 70-27. Last week, the House vote fell short of the two-thirds required to override a presidential veto.
Most Senate Democrats — including Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Armed Services Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. — voted against the bill because it includes nearly $38 billion in additional funding for the Pentagon via the overseas contingency operations (OCO) wartime account. The $612 billion bill designates $89.2 billion of “overseas contingency” overall.
The president and Democratic leaders are seeking a budget deal with Republicans that increases non-defense and defense equally, and ends spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act. They regard the GOP’s inflation of OCO funding, which is exempt from budget caps, as means of skirting such a deal.
On Tuesday, Reid said Democrats support most of the defense authorization act, “but we have to get the funding levels at an honest level, so that non-defense spending is treated fairly as well, to make sure the men and women in uniform are taken care of, but so is medical research and education, and the Veteran's Administration, and Homeland Security.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday said the president would veto the legislation over the OCO issue and because it contains language that hampers his goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility. He called on Congress, “to do their jobs, which is to pass a budget that properly reflects the economic and national defense priorities of our country.”
Twenty Democrats and one independent joined Republicans voting to pass the bill. There were two Republican “no” votes — Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas — both candidates for their party's presidential nomination.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Reed praised the the bill, which he said, “with the exception of the OCO provision, would invite widespread support.”
Reed said a one-year, plus-up undermines the Pentagon’s ability to plan and efforts to fund parts of government outside of defense that support national security. “If we rely on this approach this year, there is huge pressure next year to do the same thing, unless we can resolve the Budget Control Act,” Reed said.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued from the floor in anticipation of the president’s veto of the bill, expected to take place as early as next week. He and other Republicans, aware of Obama’s veto threat, used the vote to hammer Obama’s foreign policy and the veto threat as being anti-military.
McConnell cast the potential veto as “partisan” and “yet another grave foreign policy miscalculation from this administration, something our country can no longer afford.”
While the bill supports the OCO strategy, it only sets policy and does not appropriate funding — which Republicans who decry the White House veto plans like to point out, including Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The president is threatening to veto this legislation to prove a political point,” McCain, R-Ariz., said ahead of the vote. “Unfortunately the defense bill does not end sequestration. If the bill was capable of doing that, I would have done everything in my power to make that happen.”
McCain said Democrats and the White House would do better to focus on the appropriations process and budget talks, which recently started. Instead, he said, the president’s “ludicrous” approach is, “holding military men and women hostage to the whims of our dysfunctional politics.”