Defense Authorization Bill Heads to President Obama's Desk Again

A U.S. Army Reserve military police soldier rappels down a 40-foot tower during training at Camp Atterbury, Ind. A U.S. Army Reserve military police soldier rappels down a 40-foot tower during training at Camp Atterbury, Ind. Master Sgt. Michel Sauret / U.S. Army

Second time’s the charm.

Having resolved a budget impasse over defense spending, the Senate passed the $607 billion annual defense authorization bill 91-3 on Tuesday. It soon heads to President Obama’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it, despite earlier veto threats.

“For 53 consecutive years, Congress has passed the NDAA … but perhaps at no time in our nation’s history has this legislation been more critical,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the floor ahead of the vote, noting security crises from the South China Sea to the reported downing of a Russian jetliner by a terrorist act. “As our citizenry and voters are deeply frustrated about our inability to get anything done here, I would just point out that our highest priority and responsibility is defending the nation.”

Obama vetoed the NDAA for the first time on Oct. 22, primarily because lawmakers circumvented budget caps to boost defense spending through the Pentagon’s war chest, known as the overseas contingency operations fund. But House and Senate leadership worked out a two-year agreement to lift the caps, which Obama signed into law on Nov. 2, clearing the way for the fiscal 2016 NDAA.

After finding $5 billion in cuts to bring the NDAA in line with the budget deal, the House reintroduced the bill with no other changes and passed it Thursday by a vote of 370-58.

On Tuesday, only Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and current presidential candidate, voted against the measure. All of the candidates on the Republican side — Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Rand Paul, R-Ky. —did not vote. (The GOP holds it next presidential debate Tuesday night.)  

Still, Obama also cited restrictions on Guantanamo as part of his reasoning for vetoing the initial NDAA. Last week the White House wouldn’t rule out a second veto over the strictures, which would effectively put a legislative freeze on the president’s efforts to close the military prison in Cuba, but lawmakers made clear to Defense One they wouldn’t be changing the policy language.

In the end, the president is expected to sign the NDAA, locking those obstacles into law.

Congress has passed the “must-pass,” behemoth bill for 53 consecutive years. Republican critics used the president’s veto to accuse him of being willing to “hold our troops and their families ransom” for political reasons despite a tumultuousness global security environment. That claim packs less political punch given that this is likely the last NDAA Obama will consider before the 2016 presidential election.

Obama has opposed Guantanamo restrictions in the bill every other year of his administration, and still signed it into law. This year also represents something of an olive branch to lawmakers as the administration prepares to submit to Congress later this week a plan to close Guantanamo.

There’s little appetite for the plan on Capitol Hill, but the White House says it remains hopeful it can work with lawmakers to lift the restrictions.

Or, at least, administration officials aren’t yet publicly acknowledging they’ve exhausted all their options ahead of executive action.

On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked if the administration is concerned it is too late for the plan, given the NDAA has advanced. “The sense is that we’re going to need some cooperation from Congress in order to advance this priority,” he responded. “And that would be true whether or not the NDAA had passed or not. So no, it’s not too late.”

But acknowledging that the NDAA sets policy into 2017, Earnest said the president wouldn’t be satisfied leaving office having simply scheduled Guantanamo for shutdown.

“His goal is to have it closed on his watch as he promised,” he said. “That’s been our goal since I think the President’s second full day in office.  It continues to be our goal today.”

This story has been updated.

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