USA Today - Gregory Korte
WASHINGTON — President Obama will issue a rare veto of a defense policy bill Thursday in a showdown with Congress over broader spending levels, the White House said.
The veto of the National Defense Authorization Act is an extraordinary use of one of the president's most powerful executive tools. While the White House had problems with some of the bill's provisions, Obama's main objection is that the bill uses a budget gimmick to increase defense spending without increasing domestic spending first. The president wants Congress to lift the automatic budget caps known as sequestration included in a 2011 budget agreement.
That, congressional Republicans said, is an unprecedented and irresponsible use of the veto power.
"The president has vowed to veto it. Why? Because he wants to stop and spend more money on his domestic agenda," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday. "It's time to put our troops first, time to stop playing political games."
Since Congress started passing annual defense policy bills in 1961, they've been vetoed four times by Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush. Each time, it was for a specific policy reason: a nuclear aircraft carrier for Carter, missile defense for Reagan and Clinton, and Iraq policy for Bush.
The 2016 bill passed with large bipartisan majorities: 270-156 in the House and 70-27 in the Senate. The House would need 20 additional votes to override the veto.
Republicans complain that if they can't do that, important defense programs and reforms will be delayed. And they say there's no way to tailor the bill to get the president to sign it, because Obama is insisting on a broader spending accord first — and that may not happen until the current short-term spending bill runs out Dec. 12.
"The Republicans are right that this is extraordinary, but it’s also extraordinary times and conditions. And the veto is an extraordinary power," said George Krause, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh who's studied how presidents use veto threats in budget negotiations.
Obama is trying to avoid a situation like last year, when Republicans passed a spending bill for every department but Homeland Security — which Republicans held up in an unsuccessful effort to turn back Obama's executive actions delaying deportations.
"Obama has a record of coming out of these events pretty successfully, where usually Congress gets blamed," Krause said. "He feels like he's playing with house money. He doesn’t have much to lose, and he has a powerful institutional tool at his disposal."
In two separate veto threats to the House and Senate versions of the bill, the White House also objected to substantive provisions. As with previous defense bills, it requires him to keep open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It blocks another round of base closings. It prevents the Defense Department from exploring alternative fuels. And it uses off-budget war funding to boost defense spending.
"The concerns that we've expressed about it is it advocates essentially the use of a slush fund for funding critically important national security priorities," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said after the bill was passed. "We believe that's utterly irresponsible."
The White House has scheduled the veto for 3:45 p.m. and — in another unusual step — has invited reporters and photographers to witness his signing of the veto message.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted that he's "disturbed that (Obama) is having a photo op where he's using funding for our troops as bargaining chips."
The veto will be Obama's third this year and just the fifth of his presidency — still fewer than any president since James Garfield's assassination-shortened tenure in 1881.
But by another measure — veto threats — the White House has been more active. The Office of Management and Budget has issued 59 veto threats this year, more than any year since the George W. Bush White House issued 85 in 2007, the first year of a newly Democratic-controlled Congress.
This week alone, the White House has threatened vetoes on bills that would prioritize payments in case of a debt limit breach, ban federal funds to "sanctuary" cities, and repeal key provisions of the Affordable Care Act.