Obama vetoes defense policy bill over spending fight

U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery, Abaca Press/TNS)
From Stripes.com
U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery, Abaca Press/TNS)

Obama vetoes defense policy bill over spending fight

by: Travis J. Tritten | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: October 23, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday vetoed the annual defense policy bill that includes troop pay and benefits — as well as historic personnel reforms — making good on a promise to oppose Republicans on spending.

The White House said the GOP used an irresponsible gimmick when it tapped an overseas war fund to sidestep a cap on defense spending. The National Defense Authorization Act will now go back to Congress, where Republicans will likely attempt to rally enough votes to override Obama’s veto.

The move throws the Defense Department budget into uncertainty, and Congress will need to find a solution to the impasse by the time a temporary budget expires Dec. 11 or active-duty pay will be frozen and about 350,000 civilian DOD workers will face furloughs.

“What is going to happen is House and Senate lawmakers are going to have to come together and decide how to responsibly fund our government and fund the defense sectors of our government,” White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said.

The 2016 NDAA includes a $515-billion base defense budget that lays out troop pay, personnel benefits and policy for DOD, and the $89-billion war fund called Overseas Contingency Operations. It calls for an historic reform of the 20-year pension system, hikes in Tricare fees, protections for the A-10 Thunderbolt II and a review of troops carrying personal guns on bases, among a raft of other initiatives.

Republicans said the president was playing politics with national security and took a shot at Obama for inviting the media to photograph the veto.

“During these perilous times, the last thing we need is uncertainty surrounding the funding of our national security priorities,” Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said in a released statement. “Our soldiers are not props for a press release — they deserve to be properly funded and supported by our country.”

But Republicans in Congress have little chance at overriding his veto.

In the Senate, they were able to garner enough votes during an NDAA vote earlier this month to potentially overturn Obama. But House Republicans failed to gain the 290 votes for a veto-proof majority. Also, Democrats who voted against the bill then might be less willing to oppose the president directly.

Obama rejected the bill because it funnels about $38 billion in daily DOD expenses through Overseas Contingency Operations, which allowed Republicans to fully fund defense while avoiding a larger debate over removing caps on federal spending.

The president wants Congress to take back the NDAA and repeal the Budget Control Act, which has forced cuts on the DOD and non-defense spending since 2011. Such a move would allow Congress to move money back into the DOD base budget — satisfying Pentagon planners — and give more funding to other federal agencies such the departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, which now face caps.

“On the merits, the president believes this [NDAA] is a bad bill and it is the Secretary of Defense who said on the merits it is shortsighted,” Schultz said.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday decrying Congress and the NDAA for failing to remove the spending caps. Carter had warned lawmakers for months that the bill would be vetoed.

Without a budget solution from Congress, active-duty troops and civilian workers will take a hit, the DOD has warned. Military paychecks will stop and about half of the DOD’s 700,000 civilians will be furloughed.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten