Sen. John McCain said Wednesday that he expects negotiators to reach an agreement this week on the annual defense policy bill, though a presidential veto still threatens to derail the bill.
The national defense authorization act, also known as the NDAA, sets yearly policy priorities for the Defense Department touching every piece of the military from troop pay to acquisition reform to what platforms the services will purchase.
“I think we will be able to come up with a conference report this week, so we can have it on the floor of the House and Senate before we go into recess,” Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said in a speech at The Heritage Foundation.
The House and Senate fiscal 2016 bills are similar, but one major sticking point has been reforms to the antiquated acquisition system. Despite weeks of negotiations, Mr. McCain and his counterpart in the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, have yet to reach a compromise, though Mr. McCain said Mr. Thornberry is also eager to make changes to the current system.
“I hope to convince him, but we have not resolved that,” Mr. McCain said. “He is committed to acquisition reform.”
Mr. Thornberry’s bill would increase accountability in the acquisition process, while Mr. McCain’s bill would give more responsibility for oversight to the service chiefs.
Mr. McCain said testimony from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert that he didn’t know who was responsible for a $2.4 billion cost overrun was a “defining moment” that made him realize the leaders of each service must have more responsibility.
The presidential veto threat comes over the way lawmakers fund the bill by adding $38 billion to a war chest to get around having to raise sequestration caps imposed by the Budget Control Act. President Obama and some congressional Democrats have said they will not support a defense bill that spares the military from sequestration cuts, set to kick back into effect in fiscal 2016, while keeping the caps in place for domestic spending.
Lawmakers, as well as military officials, have noted that fully funding agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, State Department and FBI help the military keep the country safe, and that investing in domestic priorities like education increases the pool of potential military recruits.
Despite that, analysts said the defense appropriations bill — not the authorization bill — is the right place to fight the funding.
“The actual funding happens in the appropriations bill,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “I personally don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense.”
Despite that, some say Mr. Obama has been looking to veto the annual defense policy bill before, taking major issue with different pieces of the bill every year in office, but this may be the year he can actually follow through with the threat given the political landscape and use of overseas contingency operations funding.
“I think the president is highly motivated. You look at the political environment, it’s a post-election year [and] he’s looking at the end of his administration,” said Roger Zakheim, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “He can do it.”
One of the biggest concerns in vetoing the defense policy bill is that, without a new bill on the books, troops will only get paid through Sept. 30, Mr. Zakheim said.
While lawmakers have found a way to avoid dealing with sequestration for this year’s defense policy bill, Mr. McCain stressed that undoing the across-the-board cuts is still one of his top priorities in Congress.
“I’ll put the blame on Democrats; I’ll put in on Republicans; I’ll put it on my socialist colleague [Sen.] Bernie Sanders; I’ll put it on anybody. But it needs to be fixed,” he said.
The defense bill makes cuts to save “billions” through reforms to the acquisition process, changes to the military retirement system, cutting headquarters’ budgets and eliminating unneeded weapons systems, but Mr. McCain’s sequestration cuts are done differently.
“That is done with a scalpel,” he said. “Sequestration cuts across everything indiscriminately.”
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