Senate passes defense spending bill that blocks Gitmo closure, veto showdown next

© Larry Downing
Twenty-one Senate Democrats voted in favor of the NDAA, a controversial military spending bill the White House wants to veto, giving its supporters a 70-27 majority sufficient to override President Barack Obama’s opposition.

In a vote Wednesday afternoon, the Senate adopted the Conference Report accompanying House Resolution 1735, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2016. The bill authorizes $612 billion in Pentagon funding.  The “conference report” is the final version of a bill negotiated between the Senate and the House of Representatives through a Conference Committee. Last Thursday, the House approved the NDAA with a 270-156 vote, 20 short of a veto-proof majority.

READ MORE: US defense bill advances with $38 billion in extra war funds despite Obama veto threat

The bill was sent to President Barack Obama, who previously threatened to veto it. However, he may find it more difficult to do after it passed the Senate with a veto-proof majority.

One major issue Obama cited in his opposition to the NDAA is that the lawmakers sought to avoid the budget cap on defense spending by adding about $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, a special account reserved for bankrolling wars. 

The second bone of contention is the lawmakers’ refusal to allow the closure of the notorious detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

No to closing Gitmo

Subtitle D (Sections 1031-1040) of the NDAA blocks Obama’s initiative to close down “Gitmo.” It prohibits the use of funding to build facilities for Guantanamo inmates inside the US, their transfer to US soil, or release to countries of origin or third countries until a number of onerous conditions are met. One such condition calls for the Department of Defense to submit a detailed plan for all individuals held at Guantanamo, and for Congress to approve it.

The Pentagon may not release any detainees to a country “if there is a confirmed case of any individual transferred from Guantanamo to the same country or entity engaging in terrorist activity after the transfer,” says Section 1033.

Currently, 114 individuals are being held at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, 54 of whom have already been cleared for transfer. On Monday, the White House said that the president would veto the NDAA unless it offered a way to close down the camp.

Saying no to torture 

On the other hand, the same portion of the NDAA blocking the closure of Guantanamo contains a section on eliminating interrogation practices that involve “the use or threat of force.” Without explicitly mentioning the word “torture,” Section 1040 says that only the techniques authorized and listed in the Army Field Manual will be allowed. It also urges the Pentagon to revise and update the manual to reflect “current, evidence-based, best practices for interrogation that are designed to elicit reliable and voluntary statements.”

Ukraine: Military aid and scaring up business 

The draft bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee in May included a provision authorizing aid to the Ukrainian military and security forces up to and including “lethal weapons of a defensive nature.” In addition to $200 million allocated for the aid, the draft also authorized the Pentagon to accept donations from foreign governments for that purpose.
Section 1251 in the final document does not mention lethal weapons, but does extend the “security assistance and intelligence support” to “other security forces” in addition to the Ukrainian military, without specifying which “forces” they meant. In June, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to prohibit any US aid to the ‘Azov’ battalion, which they described as “openly neo-Nazi” and “fascist.”

The NDAA also requires the Pentagon to explore expanding the presence of US ground forces in Eastern Europe (Sec. 1253) and to urge NATO members to increase military spending “to improve deterrence against Russian aggression and terrorist organizations.”

Win some, lose some

While members of the military would get a 1.3-percent pay raise (Section 601), as well as retention and reward bonuses, other sections of the NDAA allow the Pentagon to slash service members’ housing allowances.

Some parts of the bill aim to preserve certain weapons systems currently in service, despite the Pentagon’s pushback – such as A10 ground attack planes and C-130 transports, for example. Section 132 also requires the US Air Force to maintain a “minimum total active inventory” of at least 1,950 fighter aircraft.

Section 151 backs the initiative to equip the Army and the Marine Corps with new rifles and pistols, requiring the Army and the Navy to submit to Congress a report on the plan to modernize small arms.

Section 342 prohibits the DOD from using any funds “for any sponsorship, advertising, or marketing associated with a sports-related organization or sporting event,” pending a review and report to Congress on the military’s activity in that regard, such as sponsorship of NASCAR racing. Using contractors to circumvent this limitation is likewise specifically prohibited.

 Only two Republicans opposed the NDAA – Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, both contenders for the party’s presidential nomination.

LISTEN MORE: