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Obama Has 38 Billion Reasons to Veto the Senate’s Defense Spending Bill

The US defense budget has passed the House and is up for a vote in the Senate, but the president has said he’ll veto it because of the unorthodox way it would fund the Pentagon.

by Matt Yurus
Oct 5 2015, 11:05pm

Congress is set to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) later this week — the massive bill that sets the annual budget for the Department of Defense — but the White House says President Barack Obama will veto the $612 billion piece of legislation because of the unorthodox way it would fund the Pentagon.

American lawmakers sidestepped mandatory budget caps on 2016 defense spending by adding roughly $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, an account that is not subject to sequestration and technically reserved for incremental costs associated with fighting wars. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said he finds this "objectionable," while Obama and the Democrats want any increase in defense spending to be met with an equal increase in domestic spending.

The NDAA is an "irresponsible way to fund our national defense priorities," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week. "If the president got this bill, he'd veto it."

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Obama has threatened to veto every NDAA since he took office but has yet to follow through, but this time his message "could not be clearer," Justin T. Johnson, a senior policy analyst for defense budgeting at the Heritage Foundation, told VICE News. "I expect the president will veto the NDAA, which will be a pretty historic event."

A veto by Obama would mark just the fifth time that a president has rejected the measure since 1961, when Congress enacted the first annual defense authorization bill. In each of these previous cases, the commander-in-chief later signed legislation that was nearly identical to its earlier version — minus a few objectionable provisions.

In 1978, for example, President Jimmy Carter vetoed a defense authorization bill because he disagreed with the measure's nearly $2 billion appropriation for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Carter later signed Congress's second proposal, which did not fund the carrier. After initially vetoing bills that funded military construction projects, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford approved the measures after Congress removed provisions that limited the president's power to close military bases.

Johnson, the Heritage Foundation, noted that those vetoes were based on policy-specific objections, unlike Obama's more general call for non-defense spending to be raised along with defense spending. "The NDAA can't touch non-defense spending, so it's completely unrelated," he said.

Republican Senator John McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Obama's veto threat "shameful." "The NDAA is a policy bill. It does not spend a dollar, and it certainly cannot raise the budget caps or deliver an agreement to fund the government," McCain said in a statement. "It is absurd to veto the NDAA for something that the NDAA cannot do."

Johnson said the "interesting question" is whether the Senate will be able to muster a veto-proof majority. On Thursday, the House voted 270 to 156 in favor of the NDAA, a margin that would be insufficient to beat a veto. This spring, lawmakers in the upper chamber secured 71 votes in favor of its version of the NDAA, which included OCO funding, four votes more than the number necessary to override a veto. The Senate is expected to get the 60 votes necessary to pass the measure later this week, but it remains to be seen whether they'll still have the extra votes this time around.

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Michael Amato, a spokesman for Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington and ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, thinks not. "Based on the outcome of the vote last week and the bipartisan opposition to the budget gimmick in the bill, the possibility of overriding the president's veto is highly unlikely," he said.

Amato also said that Ohio Republican and House Speaker John Boehner, with more than 100 of his fellow Republicans, opposed the NDAA for domestic reasons in 2009 and 2010. Democrats also worry that if they authorize an increase in defense spending now, Republicans will not fully address sequestration limits when Congress negotiates a full budget later in the year.

Smith said that there is a view that "too many in the Republican Party don't care about spending other than defense," according to a Washington Post report.

"If we let defense out of jail, give it all of this money, then that's just, that makes it even that much more difficult to do anything about the budget caps on the other appropriations bills," he said, noting that other agencies such as the Department of Justice are equally responsible for keeping America safe and should not be underfunded.

Carter wants Obama to veto it, saying that increasing the OCO fund to evade fiscal responsibility was a "gimmick" and provides a "road to nowhere." Defense programs often rely on multi-year authorizations and long-term planning.

"[It] is objectionable to me and to others in other agencies, and I think ought to be to the taxpayer, and certainly to the warfighter," Carter said, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reports that the bill includes a 1.3 percent pay increase to service members and $715 million to assist Iraqi forces fight against the Islamic State. It also authorizes lethal aid to Ukraine in the country's battle against Russian-backed separatists, and keeps restrictions on transferring detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

Follow Matt Yurus on Twitter: @Matt_Yurus

Photo via the White House

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