Fate of Defense Authorization Bill Looks Favorable Second Time Around

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the NDAA, sending it to Obama’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it into law.

U.S. Marines and their Philippine counterparts after taking part in an amphibious-landing exercise at a nine-day joint U.S. and Philippine military exercise, dubbed PHIBLEX, northwest of Manila, Philippines, October 9, 2015.
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
Molly O'Toole, Defense One
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Molly O'Toole, Defense One
Nov. 10, 2015, 1:02 p.m.

Hav­ing re­solved a budget im­passe over de­fense spend­ing, the Sen­ate passed the $607 bil­lion an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill 91-to-three 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 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 Oc­to­ber 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 Novem­ber 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-to-58.

On Tues­day, only Demo­crat­ic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and in­de­pend­ent Bernie Sanders, 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, Marco Ru­bio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul—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.”

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