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Defense Hawks Slam Obama for Vetoing Defense Bill

The Republican leaders of key defense committees on Thursday slammed President Barack Obama for vetoing the sweeping defense authorization bill.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry of Texas, head of the counterpart panel in the House, criticized the decision in a joint statement.

The veto "is not only unprecedented, but it is reckless, cynical, and downright dangerous," they wrote. "Never before has an American president used the bill that provides pay and support to our troops and their families as political leverage for his domestic agenda."

The lawmakers continued, "The defense authorization bill authorizes exactly as much money as the President requested for national defense."

In a letter to lawmakers, Obama said he rejected the $612 billion measure in part because it fails to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and seeks to skirt federal spending caps by including $38 billion for base-budget activities into the war budget -- known in military parlance as overseas contingency operations, or OCO -- which is exempt from the spending restrictions.

"While there are provisions in this bill that I support, including the codification of key interrogation-related reforms ... and positive changes to the military retirement system, the bill would, among other things, constrain the ability of the Department of Defense to conduct multi-year defense planning and align military capabilities and force structure with our national defense strategy, impede the closure of the detection facility at Guantanamo Bay, and prevent the implementation of essential defense reforms," he wrote.

"This bill also fails to authorize funding for our national defense in a fiscally responsible manner," Obama added. "It underfunds our military in the base budget, and instead relies on an irresponsible budget gimmick that has been criticized by members of both parties. Specifically, the bill's use of $38 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding -- which was meant to fund wars and is not subject to budget caps -- does not provide the stable, multi-year budget upon which sound defense planning depends ... The decision reflected in this bill to circumvent rather than reverse sequestration further harms our national security."

The lawmakers argued the legislation would bring needed changes -- some of the biggest in decades -- to the Pentagon.

"It makes important reforms that improve the benefits, management, and acquisition system in the Pentagon," they wrote. "It gives our service members new tools to battle ISIL and al Qaeda, and it provides the Ukrainians the lethal assistance they need to combat Russian aggression."

In his first testimony on Capitol Hill since retiring as defense secretary in 2011, Robert Gates on Wednesday acknowledged that the defense legislation's proposed spending plan was "a hell of a way to run a railroad," but recommended for the administration to take the money.

"My sense would be to take the money, because what's my alternative? My approach on that as secretary was take every dollar I can get where I can get it," Gates said. "In the current paralyzed state (of Congress), maybe there’s no alternative right now to getting money this way."

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.

--Bryant Jordan contributed to this report.

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