Obama, Republicans on collision course over defense bill
Republicans are heading for a veto showdown with President Obama over an annual defense bill.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has teed up the Senate to turn to the $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) next week, despite a looming veto threat from the White House.
It’s a familiar scenario for lawmakers. Obama has threatened to veto every defense bill for the past six years, but has never done so. Despite their track record, the administration is stressing that with the bill combining a host of policy fights, from lifting budget caps to closing Guantanamo Bay, the president will hold firm this year.
Speaking to reporters after lawmakers released their conferenced version of the bill, White House press secretary Josh Earnest called it an “irresponsible way to fund our national defense priorities,” reiterating that “if the president got this bill he’d veto it.”
Senate Republicans, however, appear poised to try to either call the president’s bluff or force him to issue his fifth veto on legislation that they argue is vital for helping troops and protecting national security.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama vetoing the defense bill would be “shameful.”
“If the President vetoes the NDAA, at this time of mounting global threats, he will be prioritizing politics and process over the security of our nation and the well-being of our armed forces,” he added.
Republicans, including McCain, argue that Obama shouldn’t pick a spending fight over the defense bill, which outlines Pentagon policy but doesn’t appropriate money.
If that fails, the Arizona Republican has given the president a more direct reason not to veto the legislation: A slate of civilian defense nominees need to be approved by McCain’s committee, and their fate could rest on Obama’s decision.
But the president is facing pressure to send the defense bill, which could reach his desk by the end of the week, back to Congress.
The policy bill has in many ways turned into a proxy war over spending between Republican lawmakers and the administration. Democrats say an extra $38 billion sought through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund is meant to help the Pentagon circumvent congressionally mandated budget caps, and underscores the need for a long-term deal that would increase funding for defense and nondefense programs.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is also recommending that Obama veto the bill.
“It attempts to evade the question of overall fiscal responsibility with the so-called OCO gimmick which is objectionable to me and to others in other agencies, and I think ought to be to the taxpayer, and certainly to the warfighter,” he told reporters.
Senate Republicans have never been able to successfully override a veto from Obama. During a battle earlier this year over the Keystone XL Pipeline, they fell five votes short.
This time around, Senate Democrats could keep Republicans from having their fight with Obama.
Speaking to reporters after Democrats blocked a bill to fund military construction and veterans’ benefits, the Republican leader said, “I hope we’re not going to see this stunt again next week on the defense authorization bill.”
McConnell will need 60 votes on Tuesday to overcome a procedural hurdle. If he can get every Republican to support the bill — which is unlikely, since Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) opposed the Senate’s version — he would need at least six Democratic votes.
A majority of the Senate Democrats on the conference committee are opposed to the final bill. Democratic Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) didn’t sign the final report.
On the surface that would seem to signal trouble for the defense bill next week, but the five senators also voted against the Senate’s version of the NDAA that passed by a 71-25 margin earlier this year.
That means if Democratic leadership wants to try to block the bill, they would likely face an uphill slog to convince more than a dozen senators to switch their votes and oppose the bill next week.
Asked about a potential filibuster, a Senate aide suggested that, while Tuesday’s vote could be close, the bigger focus is on if Democrats can stop the legislation from getting 67 votes — the amount needed to override a presidential veto.
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