The annual defense authorization bill, which the House passed by a vote of 375 to 34, is considered a must-pass measure. Despite frequent heated political disputes over the legislation, Congress has managed to pass a defense authorization bill for each of the last 54 years.
But the compromise that Senate and House negotiators released earlier this week, after months of negotiations, did not fully address one point that the Obama administration previously threatened could trigger a veto: The defense bill pays for programs by budgeting an additional $3.2 billion of war funds above and beyond what lawmakers agreed to spend in a two-year budget deal struck last year.
The defense policy bill sets funding levels for improving military readiness, reconfiguring the acquisition process, and increasing the size of the services.
But the White House has resisted efforts to put extra war funds toward such programs, objecting to the move because war funds are not subject to budget caps. The White House has insisted that there must be parity between spending on defense programs and spending on non-defense programs, such as infrastructure, education, and food stamps — and tapping into war funds is a way to get around such restrictions.
Last year, Obama vetoed Congress’s first attempt at the defense policy bill over concerns about its over-reliance on war funds, sending it back to negotiators to make changes and pass a defense bill revamped along the lines of the two-year budget deal that the president eventually signed into law.
This year, Republicans had wanted to use as much as $18 billion of extra war funds to pay for defense programs. But in the end, disputes over money were easier for Republican and Democratic negotiators to resolve than several of the policy changes proposed in the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Republicans won a fight against including language in the bill requiring women to begin registering for the Selective Service for a potential draft, a fight that began when lawmakers opposed to the Pentagon’s recent announcement to open up all combat roles to women launched it as a test measure. A majority of lawmakers on both the House and Senate Armed Services committees supported it, but House leaders yanked the change out of their version of the defense policy bill before it hit the floor.
After the bill was released, the White House said in a statement that the Obama administration supported the idea of extending draft registration to women.
“Universal registration both furthers our commitment to equity and serves to sustain our legacy of public service,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. “As old barriers for military service are being removed, the Administration supports — as a logical next step — women registering for the Selective Service.”
But the White House never included the provision on women in the draft in its list of items that might trigger a veto of the defense policy bill.
The White House did consider veto-worthy another provision that fell out of the bill at the 11th hour of negotiations, which would have exempted religious organizations with federal contractors from observing civil rights law and the Americans With Disabilities Act. The proposed change, sponsored by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), was effectively directed at overriding a 2014 executive order making it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.
LGBT advocates strongly protested, but Republican negotiators agreed to drop the language only after the successful election of President-elect Donald Trump, who had promised during the campaign to rip up Obama’s executive orders — potentially including the 2014 order about workplace discrimination directed at federal contractors.
The defense bill is not completely devoid of controversial changes, however. Negotiators decided to shrink the size of the National Security Council from 400 to 200 members, a move aimed at limiting how much influence the White House has over policy operations of the State and Defense departments after former defense secretaries complained of “micromanagement.” The bill also gives the administration expanded authority to ramp up national missile defense, and moderately expands a program to provide visas to certain Afghan translators and interpreters who worked for the U.S. government mission in Afghanistan.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.