Defense authorization bill unveiled amid opposition from Democrats
WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders on Tuesday unveiled a defense authorization bill that sets military policy and makes changes to troop benefits over the coming year, but it faces stiff opposition from Democrats over spending.
The $612-billion legislation calls for an historic overhaul of a retirement system that moves servicemembers into a hybrid, 401(k)-style system and increases in Tricare copays for prescription medicines.
Members of the House and Senate armed services committees who crafted the bill said they hope to see a vote by Thursday. But Democrats on the panels refused to back the bill because it sidesteps a defense spending cap by pumping $39 billion into a separate supplemental war fund, called Overseas Contingency Operations.
“It is really the OCO funding that is the fly in the ointment,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. “I did not sign the conference report and most Democrats did not.”
President Barack Obama has told Congress — and the Defense Department warned repeatedly — of a veto if Congress does not lift spending limits imposed by fiscal hawks that remain on other parts of the federal government.
Smith, voicing the same concerns of the Pentagon, said the OCO funding only coverthe department for a year and does not give military planners the long-term flexibility they need.
Republicans have been reluctant to cut military funding. But putting more money in the base defense budget would mean breaking the cap — and it would trigger deeper across-the-board budget cuts called sequestration.
A so-called “grand bargain” to remove sequestration has been elusive this year and there is near unanimous agreement in Congress that a sequester would be deeply damaging to the military and its ability to fight wars.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who once called the use of emergency war funding to skirt the cap a “gimmick,” said Tuesday it was crucial to pass the defense bill due to increasing conflict and uncertainty around the world.
He contended Democrats standing against it should instead focus on the annual spending bill, called defense appropriations, which actually dolls out money for the military. Senate Democrats are already blocking that bill from coming to a vote.
“Some of my colleagues disagree with the inclusion of additional OCO funds in the authorization,” McCain said. “I understand their views. The right place to have that fight is in the appropriations bill not the authorization bill.”