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House Republicans seek to override NDAA, despite new bill in the works

By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: October 29, 2015

The budget deal resolved the one outstanding issue keeping the national defense authorization bill from becoming law.

But lingering political differences are preventing lawmakers from wrapping things up quite yet.

House leaders have still not decided whether they want to attempt overriding the president's veto of the older, pre-budget deal National Defense Authorization Act, before putting out a new NDAA that would all but surely be accelerated through the committee process and onto the floor.

"I think the House was waiting until we have a new speaker to make these decisions," Senate Armed Services committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Thursday. "That has not been decided — that's the problem."

Republicans are looking for a chance to score political points by overriding President Barack Obama's veto and have already scheduled a floor vote for such a move Nov. 5 (they could back out). Democrats, however, are very unlikely to back such a move, especially with a new, more palatable deal in their back pockets.

The biggest hurdle facing lawmakers trying to pass the NDAA isn't one of substance, but the optics of how they want to set up the new NDAA for a vote.

Republicans and Democrats came to blows earlier this year over how the NDAA paid for defense programs in part by budgeting Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds — an off-budget war spending account — instead of insisting that Congress lift sequestration caps constraining spending across the board. Their objection was that Congress shouldn't use a defense slush fund as a way to get around sequestration caps for defense without lifting the caps for domestic spending as well.

Most Democrats opposed the deal over the OCO funding, while Obama threatened, and ultimately issued, a veto citing the same complaint.

But for the OCO issue, Republicans and Democrats had actually worked out a compromise.

Among other measures, this year's $612 billion defense authorization bill embarked on a serious restructuring of the military's retirement eligibility and benefits programs, recast defense acquisition and purchase channels and refocused military capabilities to concentrate on reemerging threats from Russia and Iran. Apart from the OCO dispute, the only other major area of disagreement was over the fate of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

In order to make the NDAA comply with the new budget deal, negotiators will have to strip out about $5 billion of the $612 billion they had authorized in the first version of the legislation. Though they have not yet identified where exactly the money will come from, neither staffers nor lawmakers think that will be a particularly difficult or time-consuming task.

Even though the new budget deal resolves the major sticking point over the NDAA, Republicans are not yet entirely ready to move on.

Republicans weren't happy when Obama announced he would veto the NDAA over the use of OCO funds to pay for other programs. And they aren't entirely pleased that after all that, Democrats are now declaring themselves satisfied with a budget deal that still pays for defense programs using some OCO funding. Under the new budget deal, about $8 billion of defense spending is still paid for by dipping into the war chest.

"We are still using OCO funding — that was bad OCO, now, it's good OCO?" McCain said. "It's still got OCO in it, and now they're for it. It certainly doesn't smack of hypocrisy."

Democrats explain their stance by pointing out that the $8 billion is much less than the $38 billion increase in OCO funds that was in the original bill and comes as part of a budget that lifts sequestration caps for domestic as well as defense programs.

"The agreement that we struck, is it perfect? No," said Chip Unruh, spokesman for Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

But Democrats think the new budget deal is "definitely better," Unruh added.

Still, House Republicans want a chance at shooting down Obama's veto. But their override attempt is unlikely to pass, so it will mostly be a political exercise.

Enough Senate Democrats joined Republicans earlier this month to support the NDAA past the two-thirds majority threshold that would be necessary for an override. But in the House, lawmakers fell 20 votes shy of the 290 they would have needed to clear a similar threshold.
 

If Congress fails to pass a new federal budget by midnight Wednesday, the fallout could be similar to the last government shutdown in 2013, which caused turmoil and temporarily forced about 350,000 Pentagon workers on leave without pay.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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