WASHINGTON — President Obama announced in his daily schedule that he would veto has vetoed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act in the Oval Office on Thursday, a rebuke to Republicans over the way they have funded defense.
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 a wartime account known as Overseas Contingency Operations (or OCO), which skirts Budget Control Act caps. Meanwhile, Republicans claim a veto would not only sends the wrong message at a time when the US faces multiple national security dilemmas, but that 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 leaderships" 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 authorizeing 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.
On Thursday, the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas — issued a joint statement on the scheduled veto.
"President Obama's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act is not only unprecedented, but it is reckless, cynical, and downright dangerous," the statement read. "Never before has an American president used the bill that provides pay and support to our troops and their families as political leverage for his domestic agenda. The American people, and most importantly, the men and women in uniform deployed to fight in dangerous war zones around the world, expect more from their commander-in-chief."
At a forum on Tuesday, the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas — the duo said the president is holding the policy bill hostage to make a political point.
McCain on Tuesday decried sequestration and the OCO workaround as a hindrance to long-term defense planning, but said Obama would do better to target the appropriations legislation. Senate Democrats blocked defense spending bills in June and September because the bills did not increase funding for both defense and non-defense programs.
McCain and Thornberry have planned a press conference in support of the 2016 NDAA set for before the president is expected to issue the veto, with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans present.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest last week reiterated the president's intention to veto the bill.
"The concerns [sic] that we've expressed about it is it advocates essentially the use of a slush fund for funding critically important national security priorities," Earnest said. "We believe that's utterly irresponsible."
House Republicans have set a Nov. 5 vote to override Obama's veto, but enough Democrats 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.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.