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Defense Bill Far From a Sure Thing in the Senate

McCain and Reed are at odds over the NDAA. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With opposition on the left gaining momentum, the Senate will consider this week the conference report for the annual defense authorization measure.  

Democrats haven’t said they’d filibuster, but the White House last week issued a veto threat , only 37 Democrats supported the measure in the House, and the Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., refused to sign off on the conference report. The issue is the use of emergency war funding — Overseas Contingency Operations — to circumvent Budget Control Act-mandated spending caps, which Democrats write off as a “budget gimmick.”  

“There are many needed reforms in the conference committee report, but the use of emergency war funds does not realistically provide for the long-term support of our forces,” Reed, who voted against the bill in June, said in a statement. “I cannot sign this conference report because it fails to responsibly fix the sequester and provide our troops with the support they deserve.”  

Democrats on Oct. 1 held their blanket filibuster of all appropriations bills, this time the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, with the hopes of compelling Republicans to negotiate over the BCA caps. (McConnell said talks  have begun at the staff level.)  

“I hope we’re not going to see this kind of stunt next week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of the NDAA, directly following the filibuster of the MilCon-VA appropriations bill.  

The NDAA passed the Senate 71-25 in June, and was immediately followed by a Democratic filibuster of the Defense appropriations bill, which means the conference report may survive if enough Democrats continue to consider the NDAA and appropriations bills separately.  

After last week's presidential veto threat, Armed Services Chairman John McCain blasted the White House for opposing the conference report due to the reliance on the OCO funds.  

"I think the president is placing his priorities over that of the nation," the Arizona Republican told CQ Roll Call. "Here we are, the most catastrophic situation in the Middle East and he is worried about the source of funding rather than providing what's necessary to defend the nation and the welfare and benefit of the men and women who serve."  

McCain’s concerns were echoed by McConnell on the Senate floor on Oct. 1, with the Kentucky Republican citing the rise of threats the U.S. faces around the world.  

“And now the Obama administration is talking about vetoing America’s national defense bill,” McConnell said. “They’re talking about vetoing the national defense bill in the wake of all this.”  

But whether the bill gets to the president’s desk or not remains to be seen. A senior Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call “we will see,” if there’s enough Democratic support. “As the president noted, it still includes the awful OCO budget gimmick that makes America less safe.”  

The cloture motion for the conference report ripens Tuesday, although no vote is set yet. It will need 60 votes to proceed.  

Only two of the seven Senate Democrats appointed to the conference committee signed the conference report: Tim Kaine of Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Both Kaine and Donnelly voted for final passage in June.  

The four Democratic senators who joined Reed in declining to sign the report — Bill Nelson of Florida, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii — voted against final passage in June.  

Looking forward, it's also uncertain if the Senate has the votes to override the presidential veto. The 71 votes that passed the bill in June would satisfy the two-thirds requirement, but it's unclear if the same support exists.  

The House does not appear to have the votes to override a veto.  

Further complicating matters is attendance. There were six absences for the Oct. 1 MilCon-VA vote, two for a Wednesday vote and four on Monday. Both a veto override and cloture are based on percentages of the full body, not those present.  

Steven T. Dennis and Anne L. Kim contributed to this report