Senate OKs massive defense bill, sends measure to Obama

Posted at 3:07 PM, Oct 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-07 16:32:57-04

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress on Wednesday sent President Barack Obama a sweeping $612 billion defense policy bill that he has threatened to veto over an ongoing battle between Democrats and Republicans over government spending.

The Senate voted to approve the measure 70 to 27.

If Obama vetoes the defense bill, it would be only the fifth time that has happened in the past half-century. The bipartisan measure is a rarity in Washington; it has become law every year for more than 50 years.

The House passed the bill last week, 269 to 151, with enough Democratic votes to sustain a presidential veto.

Obama says he'll veto it because while it contains all the money he requested, he doesn't like the way Congress did it. The bill increases defense spending by padding a separate war-fighting account with an extra $38 billion. Congress didn't increase money for domestic agencies too as the president wants.

If the veto is sustained, Congress would be forced to revise the bill or try to settle the larger budget dispute.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the president's desire to veto the bill is "outrageous" in the light of national security threats.

"I wish I could say it surprised me that President Obama might — for the sake of unrelated partisan games — actually contemplate vetoing a bipartisan defense bill that contains the level of funding authorization he asked for," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "I'm calling on him not to, especially in times like these."

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said it was a good bill. He cited 60 provisions aimed at helping streamline defense acquisitions. He said other parts of the bill would help the Defense Department keep pace with changing technology, combat cyberattacks and provides key funding for the war in Afghanistan, the fight against Islamic State militants and Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed rebels.

But he said he could not support it because it increases the war-fighting account, raising defense spending by doing an end-run around the spending caps.

Adding funds to the account, Overseas Contingency Operations — complicates defense spending, he said. It does not provide funds for many of the domestic agencies, such as the FBI, Coast Guard, Justice Department, because they remain subject to the spending caps.

"Defense budgeting needs to be based on our long-term military strategy," he said. "A one year plus-up" to the special account does not provide the Pentagon "with the certainty and stability it needs when building its five-year budget."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest has repeatedly said that the president will veto it because it's an "irresponsible way" to fund national defense. Obama also is upset about provisions in the bill that would make it harder for him to transfer suspected terror detainees out of the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of his plan to close it before he leaves office.

Among other things, this year's bill provides:

—a 1.3 percent pay increase to service members and a new retirement option for troops;

—authorizes lethal assistance to Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed rebels;

—extends the ban on torture to the CIA;

—authorizes the president's request of $715 million to help Iraqi forces fight Islamic State militants;

—authorizes $600 million for the beleaguered U.S.-led program to train and equip moderate elements of the Syrian opposition force, but requires the defense secretary to get congressional approval each time he wants to use money for the program;

—maintains restrictions on transferring terror suspects out of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba., hampering Obama's effort to close the facility; and

—directs the defense secretary to issue a policy to empower individual post commanders to decide whether members of the armed forces can carry government-issued or personal fire arms at military installations, reserve centers and recruiting centers. This provision follows shootings in Little Rock, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Fort Hood, Texas.