House Passes Compromise FY2016 NDAA, But Under Veto Threat

House Passes Compromise FY2016 NDAA, But Under Veto Threat

The House passed the compromise version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday.  The Senate plans to vote on it next week, but the White House has threatened to veto the bill because it circumvents agreed-upon budget caps by using a “gimmick” to authorize additional defense funding in an off-budget account.  The argument is part of a much larger debate over budget caps and sequestration.  The President and House and Senate leaders recently agreed to negotiations and the President said today that he will not sign another short-term spending bill like the Continuing Resolution (CR) that is keeping the government open at the moment.

Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) announced agreement on the final version of the NDAA, H.R. 1735, on Tuesday and the House adopted the conference report yesterday by a vote of 270-156.  The 270 yes votes were cast by 233 Republicans and 37 Democrats.  The no votes were by 10 Republicans and 146 Democrats.

The number of Democrats voting in favor of or against the conference report is especially important in this case because White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during a Wednesday press briefing that the President will veto the bill.   If he does, and Congress wants to override the veto, two-thirds of the House and the Senate will need to vote to do so.  The House has 435 members, so 290 votes are needed to override.  If all 247 Republicans vote to override the President’s veto, they will need 43 Democrats to vote against their own President.  Only 37 voted in favor of the conference report so all of those would have to make a more difficult political decision to oppose a Democratic President and convince six more of their party colleagues to join them.

Many Democrats, including the President, object to the addition of $38 billion for defense spending in the off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account in order to give defense more money than agreed to in caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act.  Breaking the budget caps should mean that sequestration kicks in, with across-the-board cuts to bring the total back to the capped level.   Republicans and Democrats both object to sequestration and the budget caps, but Republicans are focused on adding money only for defense, not for non-defense programs.   Democrats want both defense and non-defense spending to get relief from the caps, not preferential treatment of defense by circumventing the agreement by using what many of them call a “gimmick.”

Congress and the White House have made little progress on the top-level budget issue of sequestration.   That affects appropriations, however, not authorizations like the NDAA.  Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies to spend.   It is on that basis that HASC and SASC Republicans leaders argue that the NDAA should be approved for its policy provisions and let the budget debate be resolved in the appropriations process.  Most congressional Democrats disagree and want to make their stand on the NDAA.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on SASC, said in a statement on Tuesday that he could not support the bill.  Although it contains “many needed reforms,” he said that it “does not realistically provide for the long-term support of our forces” because they cannot depend on using this method to obtain additional funds every year.  “I cannot sign this Conference Report because it fails to responsibly fix the sequester and provide our troops with the support they deserve.”  DOD is “critical to national security, but so are the FBI, Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and many other federal agencies that help keep Americans safe.”

The bill authorizes $515 billion for DOD plus another $89.2 billion for OCO, a total of $604.2 billion.  The amount for OCO is $38 billion more than the President’s request.  Reed noted that if OCO were an agency, it would be the “second largest agency in the discretionary budget, trailing only” DOD itself, and one of every six dollars in the bill “is counted off the books.”

On Tuesday, as FY2015 was coming to an end and Congress had to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating, President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced they are ready to begin negotiations on a two-year budget deal to avoid the threat of any government shutdowns through the 2016 elections.  Boehner is resigning from Congress at the end of October, though, complicating an already difficult negotiating process.

The CR expires on December 11, so some type of appropriations action will have to be taken by then or the government will indeed face another shutdown. President Obama said during a White House news conference today, however, that he will not sign another short-term CR and the 10 weeks between now and December 11 need to be used “effectively.”

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