- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Senators overcame a filibuster on the annual defense policy bill Tuesday, delivering a significant victory to Republicans and teeing up a battle with President Obama over a threatened veto on the bill, which does everything from raising troops’ pay to setting policy for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

It would be the fifth veto of the president’s tenure, and Republicans said given the popularity of the bill and the dangerous threats the military is confronting overseas, an Obama veto would be the equivalent of declaring surrender.

A final vote is expected Wednesday before the bill is sent to the president’s desk.

“I cannot imagine a president of the United States vetoing a bill that authorizes the ability of Americans to defend this nation under these most challenging circumstances,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Armed Service Committee.

If Mr. Obama follows through on his threat, it would present the best chance yet for Congress to override him, which would take a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

There appears to be more than enough support in the Senate, which voted 73-26 Tuesday to head off a filibuster. From the Democratic caucus, 21 members sided with Republicans.

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The House fell short of two-thirds support last week when it voted 270-156. Ten Republicans joined 146 Democrats in opposition, and many of them likely face intense pressure to support an override.

Deemed one of the few must-pass measures each year, the defense policy bill, known officially as the National Defense Authorization Act, sets spending levels and rewrites rules for the Pentagon for the fiscal year. It often addresses specific problems that have arisen since the previous bill.

This year’s version, for example, includes a Defense Department prod to determine whether those working at military recruitment centers can be armed. The provision is a response to the Navy recruitment center shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July.

It also protects popular weapons programs such as the A-10 aircraft, which the Pentagon has repeatedly tried to retire but which is beloved by troops for the close air support it provides for ground forces. The legislation also calls for new strike fighters for the Navy and Marine Corps, presses ahead with development of a long-range bomber for the Air Force and restores authority for a next-generation missile defense program.

But the bill has become ensnared in a broader fight over government spending for fiscal year 2016.

Republicans want more money for the Defense Department and have proposed classifying some of it as emergency war spending, thus helping circumvent the 2011 debt law’s automatic “sequester” cuts. Democrats insist that if the Defense Department gets an increase, an equal amount must go toward domestic spending. Such a move would require breaking the sequester caps outright.

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Democrats have filibustered the annual defense spending bill but are divided over whether to filibuster the policy bill. Mr. McCain argued that they shouldn’t conflate the two.

The White House said the policy bill and the spending bill are closely linked.

“That is a piece of legislation that the president would veto, quite simply because it includes an irresponsible way for funding our core national defense priorities,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

Even if the spending fight is resolved, Mr. Earnest said, the White House is troubled by the bill’s restrictions on bringing detainees from the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. so Mr. Obama can shutter the prison as promised.

The latest version of the defense policy bill bans transfers detainees to Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, and imposes stricter certifications from the Defense Department’s secretary before transfers are made to other countries.

Mr. Earnest said the House vote gave some assurance that Mr. Obama’s veto would be sustained, which means Republicans will have to work out a compromise with Democrats.

Mr. Obama and Republican defense hawks say the Pentagon needs an additional $38 billion more than it would get under the budget caps and sequester cuts. But Mr. Obama and Democrats say they will allow it only if an additional $38 billion is allocated for health care, federal lands and other domestic programs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, last week revealed that he and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, were in the middle of negotiations with the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill about a big spending deal.

Mr. McConnell refused to divulge any details this week.

But Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the talks need to move faster to head off a series of deadlines over the debt limit and a potential government shutdown.

He repeated Democrats’ insistence that the Defense Department will not get a free pass.

“If there’s going to be increases for defense, there’s going to be increases for nondefense,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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