White House threatens veto of Senate's defense policy bill

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The White House said Tuesday that President Barack Obama will veto the Senate's version of the annual defense policy bill, objecting to provisions that would bar the closing of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and limit the size of the National Security Council staff.

An 18-page statement from the Office of Management and Budget listed the Obama administration's serious reservations with the legislation, which also denies the Defense Department's request for a new round of military base closings.

"The bill would undermine expert judgments of the department's civilian and military leadership and constrain the ability of the president and the secretary of defense to appropriately manage and direct the nation's defense," the statement said.

The Armed Services Committee passed the defense policy bill last month. The full Senate is now considering the bill, which authorizes $602 billion in military spending for the fiscal year than begins October 1.

But the committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he plans to propose an amendment that would add nearly $18 billion to the defense budget to pay for additional ships, jet fighters, helicopters and more that the Pentagon didn't request. The additional money would be added to the account the Pentagon uses for financing wartime operations.

McCain and other Republicans have pushed for the increase to fill severe budget shortfalls caused by a budget agreement reached last year that restricts defense spending to set levels. The deal, however, doesn't cover the wartime account. The Obama administration sought $58.8 billion for the account in the 2017 budget.

But Tuesday's statement signals the administration will oppose McCain's strategy even though the budget increase would buy equipment and retain personnel the military services have said they need.

A central tenet of the budget deal, according to the statement, is that any increases in federal spending "be shared equally between defense and non-defense," meaning that the GOP-led Congress would have to approve an equal boost for domestic programs. But members of the House's fiscally conservative Freedom Caucus are unlikely to go along unless there are offsetting reductions in spending.

The bill's renewal of longstanding prohibitions on shuttering the prison at Guantanamo Bay and barring detainees from being transferred to the United States have kept Obama from fulfilling a campaign promise.

The administration also opposes language in the Senate bill that would prevent Guantanamo detainees from being moved to countries that are the subject of State Department travel warnings.

Those warnings "do not reflect a country's ability to mitigate potential risk" or serve as an appropriate substitute for the administration's assessment of which countries are best able to receive detainees, according to the White House statement.

The provisions restricting the size of the National Security Council staff reflect concern among Republicans that the staff is micromanaging military operations even though its role is to coordinate policy and advise the president.

The bill caps the size of the NSC staff at 150 to keep it from expanding into "tactical and operational issues," according to the committee. But the administration said the restriction amounts to a radical restructuring that could inhibit the staff's ability to advise and assist the president.