Marines set up perimeter security during a fast rope exercise at Auxiliary Airfield 2, Yuma, Ariz.

Marines set up perimeter security during a fast rope exercise at Auxiliary Airfield 2, Yuma, Ariz. Cpl. Summer Dowding / U.S. Marine Corps

Senate Moves Defense Policy Bill One Step Closer to Obama’s Veto Pen

But enough Democrats got on board to give Republicans the votes to override it in the Senate.

The Senate has moved the annual defense policy bill one step closer to passage and President Barack Obama’s desk, where he has promised to veto it. But the upper chamber did so with a somewhat surprising amount of Democratic support, indicating the Republican majority has enough votes to override the threatened veto.

As the vote trickled by on Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., had told Defense One: “The question is, is there going to be 60 votes.”

But the Senate advanced the fiscal year 2016 bill, known as the NDAA, by a vote of 73 to 26. Twenty-one Democrats voted for the $612 billion bill, despite the Obama administration’s opposition to what they call a “gimmick” — using the Pentagon’s war chest, the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, or OCO, to increase military spending while skirting the budget caps. Only one Republican, presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., voted nay.

The vote on final passage — which could come as soon as Wednesday — will likely see less Democratic support. But Tuesday’s count suggested proponents have comfortably secured the necessary 67 votes, or two-thirds majority, to override Obama’s veto.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had hinted before the vote that when the president ultimately kicks the bill back to Congress, Democrats will fall in the party line. “My Democrats, our Democrats, have stated without any question if it comes time that we sustain a presidential veto, that will be done,” he said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee who shepherded the bill through conference negotiations with the House, reminded colleagues the NDAA is a military spending blueprint, and doesn’t actually appropriate any funds.

“Don’t say you support the men and women in uniform, come to the floor and say that, and then vote against this bill,” he said.

Earlier this summer Democrats vowed the real fight over defense spending would occur with the appropriations bills and budget. Having passed a short-term spending fix to keep the government running, in the past days Democrats have also resumed lobbying against the final NDAA negotiated with the House.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat, argued Tuesday that passing the NDAA locks in what’s essentially a dodge by Republicans to avoid the broader budget negotiations so badly needed.

“We want to give our troops the very best treatment, but we certainly don’t want to shortchange the other side of the government, the non-defense side, and that’s what the budget negotiations are all about,” he said. “So Republican after Republican comes to the floor and says the Democrats just don’t care about the military. It’s not true.”

The Republican majority in both chambers, for their part, has pushed hard against Obama’s veto threat, invoking national security and support for the troops.

“This is not the time to flip-flop on the men and women who protect us,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “This is not the time to flip-flop on America’s defense. Certainly not in this age of daunting global threats.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a statement after the House passed the NDAA conference report Thursday, “The only redline the President is willing to enforce is vetoing the bill that pays or troops. Is that the legacy he really seeks?”

In the end, while revealing more divisions among Democrats than their leadership may like, the Senate’s actions this week may be moot — while Senate Republicans may have enough votes to override a veto, Thornberry and his Republican colleagues in the House do not. The House passed the NDAA 270 to 156 — meaning Obama still looks to have the final say, and it’s back to the drawing board.