Senate passes $612B defense policy bill despite veto threat
© Lauren Schneiderman

The Senate passed an annual $612 billion defense policy bill Thursday, including extra war funding for the Pentagon that brought a veto threat from the White House.

Senators voted 71-25 on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which lays out broad policy requirements for the Defense Department.

Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden tries to erase Trump's 'America First' on world stage Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military GOP senators press Justice Department to compare protest arrests to Capitol riot MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFauci to Chelsea Clinton: The 'phenomenal amount of hostility' I face is 'astounding' GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message Fox host claims Fauci lied to Congress, calls for prosecution MORE (R-Ky.), both of whom are running for president, were the only Republicans to vote against the bill.

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The usually bipartisan bill garnered strong criticism from Democratic leadership this year for including an extra $38 billion in funds through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the Pentagon's war fund. The maneuver allowed Republicans to bypass federal budget caps imposed in 2011.

"There is one overarching problem that remains with this bill. The problem is that this bill is funded through the OCO accounts in a significant way," Sen. Reed (R.I.), the lead Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said ahead of the vote. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Rising crime rejuvenates gun control debate on campaign trail MORE (D-Conn.) told reporters he doesn't agree with the extra war funding but that Democrats would rather use a separate defense spending bill to make their stand on lifting the budget caps.

"I think there's a lot of my colleagues who want to fight this once rather than twice," he said.  

Murphy joined a majority of Senate Democrats to pass the bill.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Arizona AG Mark Brnovich launches Senate challenge to Mark Kelly Arizona Democrats launch voter outreach effort ahead of key Senate race MORE (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tried to persuade Democrats ahead of the vote, suggesting that dropping the extra funding would hurt the military. 

"I don't like the use of OCO," he said. "[But] to get hung up on the method of funding which many will use as a rationale for opposing this bill seems to me an upside-down set of priorities, badly upside-down." 

The $612 billion bill, which authorizes a wide array of funding for defense and foreign policy issues, now goes to conference with House lawmakers, led by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. 

Thornberry and McCain separately told reporters earlier this week that they'll be able to get the House-Senate conference committee report passed by the end of July.

The Senate's passage of the defense policy bill comes months ahead of the upper chamber's pace in recent years when lawmakers have scrambled at the end of the year to finish their work. 

But even if the legislation passes Congress, the White House has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions of the defense policy bill. 

"If this bill were presented to the President, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the President that he veto it," according to a statement from the White House's Office of Management and Budget. 

The White House, as well as congressional Democrats, argue that if Congress is going to increase defense spending it must also increase non-defense spending. 

Asked about a potential veto, McCain said earlier this week that it was a "real threat," but added that it would be "hard to justify to the American people in the world we live in."  

McConnell told reporters after the vote that it "looks like this is a bill that can actually become law" despite the presidential veto threat 

But, asked if the veto-proof majority of Thursday's vote meant the Senate would be able to override a potential veto, McCain suggested he was less confident. 

"I can't be sure," he said. "You don't know what kind of pressures might be exerted in the case of a veto." 

McCain added that he asked Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during a breakfast meeting to tell him where they could try to find areas of agreement with the administration while lawmakers work out the final bill in conference. 

This story was updated at 3:39 p.m.