Obama Veto of Defense Bill Is Opening Shot in Budget Showdown

  • Veto comes amid funding fight between White House and Congress
  • Administration says the defense bill depends on a `slush fund'

President Barack Obama speaks before signing a veto of H.R. 1735, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), in the Oval Office on Oct. 22, 2015.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s veto of an annual defense policy bill is the opening shot in a battle with congressional Republicans over government spending that will play out over the next several weeks.

The veto of the legislation, which authorizes $612 billion in military spending, had long been promised by the White House, and Obama took the unusual step of bringing reporters into the Oval Office on Thursday to watch him do it.

He used the opportunity to again chide Republicans for trying to bypass spending caps to increase defense spending while failing to address domestic spending priorities.

“I have repeatedly called on Congress to eliminate the sequester and make sure we are providing stability to our military,” Obama said, referring to the across the board limits imposed as part of an earlier budget deal. “This bill instead resorts to gimmicks.” 

Representative Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the president’s action “reckless, cynical, and downright dangerous.”

Proxy Fight

The bill, including a 1.3 percent pay raise for members of the military, was passed by the House and Senate earlier this month.  The measure is separate from legislation being negotiated to keep the government running past Dec. 11, when current spending authority expires. But it’s serving as a proxy for the fight between Obama, who wants to raise spending on domestic programs, and Republicans, who are promising to cut the overall budget while still ramping up spending for defense.

Obama vetoed the bill, H.R. 1735, because it uses Overseas Contingency Operations funds to bypass budget caps. He and his aides have repeatedly referring to that as using a “slush fund” to skirt existing budget rules.

Thornberry and McCain said Thursday in a joint statement that Obama’s action was unprecedented. “Never before has an American president used the bill that provides pay and support to our troops and their families as political leverage for his domestic agenda,” they said.

Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said the administration was confident that Obama’s veto would stand, forcing Republicans to negotiate with Democrats on the budget. The White House wants Congress to lift the spending limits imposed as part of a 2011 budget deal.

‘Harmful Cuts’

“This administration does believe that the harmful cuts known as sequestration should be lifted on both sides, the domestic and the non-domestic,” Schultz told reporters on Thursday. “The president believes on the merits that this bill is wrong for the Defense Department.”

The House would have to vote first to override the veto because the legislation originated there. Republicans need a two-thirds majority, or 290, if all members vote. The House approved the defense measure Oct. 1 by a vote of 270-156 with 10 Republicans and 146 Democrats voting against it. Even if all Republicans vote to override the veto, they still would need several Democrats. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview he’s urging all Democrats to sustain the veto.

If the House fails, the Senate won’t get to hold an override vote.

The White House also opposed the legislation over a number of its provisions, including barring the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and restrictions on Obama’s ability to transfer detainees from that prison. Obama has yet to send Congress a plan to shut the facility--a promise he made while campaigning for president in 2008.

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