House passes defense authorization, setting up veto showdown

House passes defense authorization, setting up veto showdown

The House passed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act Thursday, setting up a veto showdown with the Obama administration. 

The 270-156 vote comes after the House and Senate Armed Services committees reached agreement on a final conference report earlier this week. 

The Senate is expected to take it up next week, and if passed, it will head to the president.

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President Obama has issued a veto threat against the bill, which senior administration officials warn he will follow through on. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday he has already recommended that the president veto it.

The White House and Democrats oppose the bill because it would authorize spending levels in accordance with a Republican plan to boost defense spending, but leave federal spending caps in place on nondefense spending. 

The bill would authorize $612 billion for the Defense Department — the same amount the White House has requested — but it would leave budget caps, known as sequester, in place and funnel $38 billion through a war fund not subject to the caps. 

The White House wants Congress to lift the caps on both defense and nondefense spending, and instead put the $38 billion into the Pentagon's base budget. 

"To have a national defense authorizing bill with $38 billion in imaginary money is not good for our troops. And it is not good for our country. We need to lift the budget caps," said Rep. Adam SmithAdam SmithArmed Services leaders appoint strategy panel members House passes 6.5B defense policy bill House votes to allow Pentagon funding for gender transition MORE (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedArmed Services leaders appoint strategy panel members Senators ask for Syria policy study in defense bill Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Pentagon No. 2 | Uncertain future for Iran deal | Trump to visit Pentagon Thursday | Key general opposes military space corps MORE (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that Congress should resolve the larger budget fight before sending the defense policy bill to the president's desk. 

After a budget resolution, there would be only minor technical fixes to the bill, he said. 

Republicans say the president's veto threat is misplaced, since the bill does not appropriate funding levels and only authorizes the funding — at the same level the White House is requesting. 

"This bill is good for the troops and it’s good for the country, and that ought to override everything else," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

According to a Republican House aide, since it was first passed over 50 years ago, the defense authorization has only been vetoed four times: in 1979, 1989, 1996 and 2008. Each time, a compromise was found, the aide noted. 

"This is the first time that the commander in chief will sacrifice national security by vetoing a bill that provides pay and benefits for our troops, as leverage for his larger domestic political agenda," the aide said. 

The bill passed the House and Senate earlier this year on a bipartisan basis. It authorizes Pentagon activities and programs, and has passed for 53 years in a row. 

The bill would keep the ban on bringing detainees to the United States for another year, continue a ban on transfers to Yemen and add bans on transfers to Syria, Libya and Somalia. 

It would also allow one-year increases in military healthcare prescription co-pays. It would reform the military retirement system, allow troops who serve fewer than 20 years to receive some retirement benefits, and allow troops to be able to take a lump sum payment after 20 years instead of waiting until they are 60 years old.

It would also introduce broad reforms to the way the Pentagon purchases and develops weapons systems, in order to streamline the process and cut costs. 

Other provisions of the conference bill include allowing the United States to provide arms to Ukraine; providing for coordination between the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs on mental health issues; allowing troops on bases in the United States to carry arms in accordance with state laws; and banning torture by any U.S. agency.

- Cristina Marcos contributed.