Senate passes massive defense bill, but fails to secure veto-proof majority to fund it

(Photo credit: Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons)

On Thursday, the Senate passed a more than $600 billion  defense policy bill for 2016. Known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the legislation touches on everything from prisoner torture to pay for troops. And while this year’s bill breezed through the Senate without a hitch, its companion appropriations bill did not. Jani Actman reports from Washington DC.

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Senators passed the National Defense Authorization Act Thursday 71 to 25. While that’s enough to override a presidential veto, they failed secure a veto-proof majority for the separate appropriations bill.

The NDAA only authorizes spending for the Pentagon, and Senate Democrats hinted early on that they wouldn’t approve the spending bill.

“We’re going to do what we think is appropriate for the country,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told Republican Senate President Mitch McConnell Wednesday. “A secure nation, Mr. President, takes more than bombs and bullets. Having a secure nation is also to make sure we have a good education system, we have a good transportation system, we have a good program to maintain research for health.”

Reid and other Senate Democrats say that Republicans have used a “budget gimmick” to hike spending for the Pentagon but not for other federal agencies.

The bill attaches 38 billion dollars to a war-fighting contingency fund, yet it leaves spending caps intact for line items unrelated to defense. The spending caps, set in 2011, don’t apply to the contingency fund.

But Senate Democrats want a long term solution to the caps. So does the White House. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill because of the padded contingency fund.

“When I consider the possibility that for a cynical political reason that some might decide to block this appropriation bill that actually literally pays the salary of the troops, I’m very disappointed,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who accused Democrats of playing politics.

Along with paying the troops’ salary – this year giving them a 1.3 percent raise – the bill contains hundreds of provisions regarding defense policy.

One amendment reinforces the president’s policy of banning federal employees from using torture techniques during prisoner interrogations.

The bill also requires the International Committee of the Red Cross to have access to prisoners held by the U.S. Government.

Six months ago, the Senate intelligence committee released its public version of a lengthy investigation into so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA against detainees.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California led that investigation and co-sponsored the anti-torture amendment.

“Whatever one may think about the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program, we should all agree that there can be no turning back to the era of torture,” she remarked ahead of the roll call vote. She says the measure ensures that a future president can’t lift Obama’s ban.

Another amendment within the NDAA could allow Obama to close Guantanamo Bay, but only with congressional approval.

Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that means there’s little chance the president will be able to close the detention center.

“Closing Guantanamo was a campaign promise,” he noted. “President Obama said many times closing the prison is a moral imperative and a national priority for the United States. Members of Congress just don’t agree with that.”

Some noteworthy proposals didn’t make it into the final bill.

Legislation to supply U.S. arms to Kurdish fighters in Iraq fell short. So did a measure to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.

The Senate also voted down a proposal to increase the public-private sharing of information on so-called cyber threats, just on the heels of a massive data breech targeting the Office of Personnel Management. That hack affected the security of information on hundreds of thousands of current and past federal employees.

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