Sen. John McCain, at a Sept. 22 Armed Services Committee hearing.

Sen. John McCain, at a Sept. 22 Armed Services Committee hearing. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Defense Policy Bill Heads to Obama, Who Readies Veto Pen

The 2016 NDAA would give the Pentagon all the money the White House requested — but without resolving four-year-old budget caps.

The Senate sent the annual defense policy bill to the White House on Wednesday, daring President Obama to veto the “must-pass” legislation for the first time in his administration.

Twenty Democrats and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, joined nearly every Republican to pass the $612 billion 2016 National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 70-27. (“No” votes included presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky.)

That’s more than than the 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto — but Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that if Obama rejects the bill, Democrats would line up to support him. Either way, the House vote on the bill last week didn’t put up sufficient numbers to overturn a veto. Obama has 10 days to decide whether to reject the bill.

Presidents have vetoed an NDAA only four times in 53 years, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, noted after the vote. Thornberry and his counterpart, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. warned Obama not to join that list.

“Why not get this done, and at least show the world that our political institutions can function for our own national defense?” Thornberry said. “Y’all, think about the headlines today — the Russians launch cruise missiles, a new ground offensive is starting in Syria — there is danger wherever you look. This is absolutely one of the worst times I can imagine to veto a bill that supports our troops, that gives the president additional tools.”

Obama threatened a veto largely because Congress used wartime contingency funding to get around budget caps, and because it would make it more difficult to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Both chairmen said they weren’t happy with the funding maneuver, but noted that the bill would spend exactly as much as the president requested.

“We want to give the military the ability to plan ahead, rather than having to lurch from one year to another and from one [continuing resolution] to another,” said McCain, but for Obama “to veto what is fundamentally a budget bill, a policy bill, in the name of cost, is inappropriate.”

Thornberry noted that parts of the bill passed with strong bipartisan support, such as acquisition reform and changes to the military retirement system. He warned if the president spikes the bill, “There is no guarantee that comes back.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and soon-to-be-retired House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have begun negotiations with the White House to see if they can resolve the budget impasse. That may mean the defense appropriations bill will come before the authorization one.