A Trump veto of defense bill could cut lawmakers’ holiday break short

Key lawmakers stress military pay raise hinges on enactment of must-pass bill

Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., left, and ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, are seen before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 6, 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., left, and ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, are seen before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 6, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 7, 2020 at 4:10pm

Congress should cut short its coming recess, if necessary, to ensure a defense authorization bill becomes law this year, senior House members said Monday.

Asked if Congress would take a shorter holiday break if it was necessary to override a presidential veto of the NDAA, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said: “I hope so. That would be my expectation.”

Earlier on Monday, the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee said an override during what would otherwise be a holiday recess may be necessary to enable troops to get authorization for pay raises and to ensure other important provisions become law.

“If the president vetoes it, we will come back to vote to override,” said Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee chairman, in a conference call with reporters.

“We would be rightly and fairly criticized when we can’t come back to deal with military pay,” said Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, the ranking member, in separate call.

Thornberry added that the troops should not be “punished” because politicians failed to enact the legislation.

Veto threat

At issue is the annual measure that authorizes defense spending — a proposed $731.6 billion for fiscal 2021 in this year’s bill. As Smith and Thornberry pointed out Monday, a number of military pay provisions can only go into effect if authorized, and the same is the case with military construction and certain other programs.

Washington has enacted the NDAA for 59 straight fiscal years. But Trump has threatened to veto the measure if it does not include a repeal of legal protections for social media companies and if it requires military bases to be renamed if their names honor Confederates.

Trump reiterated his stance late last week on Twitter, saying “I will VETO!”

He delivered a similar message again during a Saturday rally in Georgia, where he cited the measure’s proposal to do away with base names such as Fort Benning in that state and the bill's lack of language addressing the social media protections.

“I want it in the defense bill,” he said of the social media measure. “Put it in because it's a national security problem.”

Tight schedule

The House plans to adopt the NDAA conference report as soon as Tuesday, and the Senate may follow suit later this week. A few days will then be required to enroll the bill before it can be sent to the White House.

Once Trump receives the measure, he can take up to 10 days, excluding Sundays, to either sign or veto the bill.

It appears possible, then, that the president could veto the bill just before Christmas.

Yet lawmakers will want to finish the 116th Congress, at least informally, and go home for the holidays by Dec. 18 or so, after clearing a possible omnibus spending package that could include new coronavirus relief money.

In the event that Trump vetoes the measure near Christmas, congressional leaders would have to decide whether to extend the session into the week of Christmas to be ready to override a veto — or bring lawmakers back after Christmas and before the new Congress begins on Jan. 3.

Bad options

Alternatively, members could clear a so-called "skinny" NDAA that includes just key provisions, starting with military pay increases. The pay and benefits changes, which include special compensation items like hazard pay, would take effect Jan. 1.

But Thornberry suggested a skinny bill would be politically challenging to pull off, because both parties would be under pressure to include in the bill additional provisions that they favor. He cited Democrats' desire to include the Confederate base name language, for example.

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Smith delivered the same message and noted that Trump would veto a skinny bill, too, if it did not address his social media concerns.

“We will never pass a skinny bill,” Smith said. “That is not an option.”

Smith and Thornberry also threw cold water on the prospect of the next Congress promptly clearing in January a new version of the fiscal 2021 NDAA. They cited a variety of factors that would require many weeks to make a new bill a reality early next year, including convening new committees to report new bills in both chambers.

“You’d have to restart the entire process,” Smith said. Both members alluded to the fact that, with a new president and new Congress, re-upping the same NDAA with a new cover might not be acceptable to everyone.

Despite the seemingly dim prospects for the NDAA in the last days of 2020, Thornberry — who is retiring after this session of Congress — held out hope that Trump would reverse course when the president sees the strong support for the NDAA in both chambers this week and when he considers the downside to not enacting the bill.

“The consequences are so significant, substantively and politically, there’s a good chance that it will become law, one way or another, before Jan. 2,” he said. “I hope so. That’s what needs to happen for the good of the country.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.