President opposes bill due to funding woes, leading Democrats to try and sink bill, contents of which they mostly support

In this May 5, 2015, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, after a news conference. (Evan Vucci/AP)
In this May 5, 2015, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, after a news conference. (Evan Vucci/AP)


WASHINGTON – The Senate passed a key defense spending bill with a veto-proof majority Wednesday afternoon posing a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who has said that he will garner enough votes to sustain an anticipated veto from President Barack Obama. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 contains provisions to fund joint US-Israel defense projects, including a new anti-tunneling initiative.

Obama opposes the bill because it allows defense spending to sidestep the cuts to the defense budget dictated by the across-the-board sequestration, which went into effect in 2013 after Congress and the White House failed to agree on budget-reducing measures. Instead, this bill funds almost $38 billion to the Defense Department by dipping into an account meant to be reserved for overseas operations during wartime.

According to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, the president has also taken issue with the fact that the bill could make it harder to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Reid spoke from the Senate floor in favor of most of the bill, emphasizing that the side-step of the sequestration cuts was the only obstacle to the bill being signed into law.

If the president were to veto the bill, Reid needs to muster some 34 senators to vote against a veto override. On Wednesday, 70 Senators voted to advance the bill – meaning that Reid must enlist an additional four senators to vote against the legislation should the Senate attempt to override a veto. Two Republicans – presidential contenders Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – voted together with 25 Democrats against the bill.

Traditionally, the NDAA is considered a crucial defense bill, and if it is vetoed, it will mark only the fifth time that a president has exercised veto power over the annual legislation. The last instance of a veto was in 2008, during the George W. Bush administration.

This year’s legislation authorizes spending on military acquisition programs, provides defensive weapons to the Ukraine and reauthorizes military salaries and personnel benefits. The bill sets policy, but does not actually appropriate funds – that is reserved for the budgetary process which is currently underway.

Speaking from the Senate floor in favor of the bill, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the president’s veto threat as “yet another grave foreign policy miscalculation from this administration, something our country can no longer afford.”

The bill, which sets guidelines for defense spending for the 2016 fiscal year, would authorize the establishment of a joint anti-tunnel program between Israel and the US. The initiative would be funded up to $25 million per year, provided that matching funds are provided by Israel. The bill would also provide over $206 million earmarked for rocket and missile defense ventures, including $41.4 million for the Iron Dome project, up to $150 million for procurement of the David’s Sling, and a maximum of $15 million for the Arrow 3 Upper Tier Interceptor Program.

It also would require Congress to be briefed on the anticipated sale of fighter airplanes to Qatar including an analysis reflecting on the implications of the sale for Israel’s ability to retain its “qualitative military edge.” Speaking late last month in Washington, former IDF chief-of-general-staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz emphasized the commitment to Israel’s so-called “QME” as one of the highlights of the US-Israel relationship.

In addition to setting funding for joint US-Israel partnerships as part of the larger defense budget, the current legislation includes a number of policy dictates regarding US actions in the Middle East.

The bill would require the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State to jointly submit to Congress by mid-February “a strategy for the Middle East and to counter violent extremism.”

It would require the already-mandatory annual report on Iran’s military power to include a section on Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities and would also require a new report on “any military-to-military engagements conducted by the Armed Forces or Department of Defense civilians with representatives of the military or paramilitary forces (including the al-Quds Force) of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the one-year period ending on the date of the submission of the report.”

The bill also contains what is called a “sense of Congress” clause, expressing concern that Iran’s activities “justify continued pressure by the United States” and that as a result, the US should continue to work with regional partners to counter Iranian threats.

As reported by The Times of Israel