House Passes Defense Bill, Defies Veto Threat from White House

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The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a sweeping defense bill for fiscal 2016, but failed to garner enough votes to override a presidential veto.

The lower chamber voted 270-156 in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year that began today. That’s shy of the 290 votes needed to override a veto from President Obama, who vowed to do so because of the way the legislation would skirt federal spending caps.

"This is a strong, bipartisan bill that authorizes pay and benefits for our troops and their families, and offers our men and women in uniform the authorities and support they need to continue defending the country," Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after the House passed the measure.

"It also includes landmark reforms that add options to military retirement and improves the way the Pentagon and buys goods and services," he said. "The world is getting more dangerous by the day, our allies believe we are missing-in-action, and our enemies are gaining ground across the globe. The only redline the President is willing to enforce is vetoing the bill that pays or troops. Is that the legacy he really seeks?"

The $612 billion bill includes $89 billion for war-related activities, known in military parlance overseas contingency operations, or OCO. But $38 billion of that latter figure is for base budget-related operation and maintenance. The funding shift to the war account, which is exempt from federal spending caps, was a deliberate attempt to avoid limits set forth by 2011 deficit-reduction legislation.

Administration officials have referred to the move as "budget gimmick" and called on Congress to pass legislation that lifts sequestration.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday said he will recommend for Obama to veto it.

"It attempts to evade the question of overall fiscal responsibility with the so-called OCO gimmick, which is objectionable to me and to others in other agencies, and I think ought to be to the taxpayer, and certainly to the warfighter," Carter told reporters.

A White House spokesman said the president plans to veto the legislation.

The defense bill calls for a 1.3-percent pay raise for military troops, slower growth in basic allowances for housing (BAH) so troops pay 5 percent of the costs by 2019, overhauling the retirement system to include a 401(k)-like benefit in 2018, higher Tricare pharmacy co-pays for retirees, and letting commanders authorize troops to carry firearms on U.S. bases, among other provisions.

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.mcgarry@military.com.

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