WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama vetoed a $612 billion defense policy bill Thursday, and he insisted congressional Republicans send him a better version that doesn't tie his hands on some of his top priorities.
In an unusual Oval Office ceremony, Obama praised the bill for ensuring the military stays funded and making improvements on armed forces retirement and cybersecurity. Yet he accused Republicans of resorting to "gimmicks" and prohibiting other changes needed to address modern security threats.
"Unfortunately, it falls woefully short," Obama said. "I'm going to be sending it back to Congress, and my message to them is very simple: Let's do this right."
Republicans vowed to muster the votes to override him.
Four years after Congress passed and Obama signed into law strict, across-the-board spending limits, both parties are eager to bust through the caps for defense spending. But Obama has insisted that spending on domestic programs be raised at the same time.
To sidestep the budget caps, known in Washington as sequestration, lawmakers added an extra $38.3 billion to a separate account for wartime operations that is immune to the spending limits. The White House has dismissed that approach, arguing it fails to deal with the broader problem or provide long-term budget certainty for the Pentagon.
Obama also rejects the bill as written because of provisions making it harder for him to transfer suspected terror detainees out of the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a key campaign promise that Obama is hard-pressed to fulfill before his term ends. The White House also has expressed concerns over provisions preventing military base closures and funding equipment beyond what the military says it needs.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, called the veto "misguided, cynical and downright dangerous." And more than a dozen House and Senate Republicans, including Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, joined in accusing Obama of putting politics ahead of the troops.
"Congress should not allow this veto to stand," House Speaker John Boehner said.
Members of Arkansas' congressional delegation, all Republicans, said Obama should've signed the legislation.
In an interview, Rep. Bruce Westerman said the veto "sends a dangerous message" to servicemen, foreign allies and the nation's enemies.
"We're talking about the security of the country. We're talking about men and women in uniform who rely on this funding for their paychecks," he said. "If there's anything that shouldn't be partisan, it's the defense of our country."
Other delegation members issued written statements denouncing the veto.
"By using our servicemen and women as a bargaining chip to try to force Congress to raise domestic spending levels, the President is playing political games with our national security," Sen. John Boozman said.
He added that he would support overriding Obama's "irresponsible veto so we can ensure that our servicemen and women can complete their missions successfully and return home safely."
Sen. Tom Cotton said Obama "should reverse this disastrous course and sign the Defense Authorization Act. Then we can have whatever debate he wants about defense spending. But to gratuitously veto this bill for no other reason than to get more political leverage the President sends a deeply harmful message to our troops overseas."
Rep. Rick Crawford said he supports overriding the veto.
"As the commander-in-chief, the President should know how crucial this bipartisan legislation is for American troops, but his past actions and now this veto demonstrate that our military's efficacy is not the priority for him that I believe it should be," he said.
Also critical of Obama was Rep. French Hill.
"Largely due to his indecisive and ineffective foreign policy, America and her allies face unprecedented threats in the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe," he said. "Just last week, the President announced he would keep boots on the ground in Afghanistan, yet now, today, he has vetoed the legislation that authorizes pay and benefits for the men and women who fight our wars."
Rep. Steve Womack said the president has misplaced priorities.
"Holding our national security hostage for pet social programs is not only shortsighted but also a clear threat to our nation and our soldiers abroad," he said. "We cannot truly protect ourselves in an increasingly unstable world when we have a Commander in Chief who would put lives at risk for his own liberal agenda."
The White House and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi insisted Democrats had the votes to ensure Obama's veto stays in place. Barring a veto override, Congress will have to revise the bill or try to settle the larger budget dispute.
Obama has vetoed only a handful of bills before, generally in private. In an effort to call attention to his concerns, the White House invited reporters and photographers to witness him vetoing the defense bill.
Information for this article was contributed by Josh Lederman and Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press and by Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 10/23/2015
Print Headline: GOP condemns Obama's defense-bill veto