WASHINGTON — The House defied a veto threat from President Barack Obama on Friday and approved a $612 billion defense policy bill that Democrats complain busts budget limits on military spending and makes it harder for the president to close the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
The vote was 269 to 151 for the legislation, a blueprint for next year’s spending on military and other national security programs.
While Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the bill, 41 Democrats disregarded Obama’s objections and joined the GOP lawmakers in passing it. Another 143 Democrats voted against it.
A 2011 bipartisan budget deal placed limits on defense and domestic spending. The House defense bill skirts those caps by putting $89 billion of the total into an emergency war-fighting fund, which is exempt from the restrictions.
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Democrats warned that Republicans won’t do the same end-run around spending caps when it comes to financing non-defense agencies later this year, opening the door to sharp cuts in domestic spending.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the defense bill would be a prelude to future reductions that would “devastate other vital pillars of our national strength,” including homeland security, veterans, road building and other programs.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused Democrats of “letting politics come before national security.”
“With all the threats our troops face and the sacrifices they make,” he said, “Democrats’ opposition to this defense bill is in fact indefensible.”
Overall, the House bill authorizes $515 billion for national defense and another $89.2 billion for the emergency war-fighting fund for a total of $604.2 billion. Another $7.7 billion is mandatory defense spending that doesn’t get authorized by Congress.
That means the bill would provide the entire $611.9 billion desired by the president, but Obama and Democratic lawmakers still opposed it.
Democrats said putting money in the war account and not the base budget prevents the Pentagon from doing long-term planning for costly programs and weapons systems.
“Clearly, this desperate attempt to get around the budget caps put in place by Congress will have a significant negative effect on our military,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the panel’s chairman, has acknowledged that padding the war-fighting account was not the best way to “run a railroad.”
“I agree that we ought to find a better way to find fiscal discipline without the arbitrary caps … but this bill can’t do that,” Thornberry said in closing remarks that drew cheers from supporters. “If this bill fails, how does that get us closer to fixing our budget problems?”
The White House has pushed back against a host of provisions in the bill, including one that would make it harder for Obama to close the military prison for terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay by imposing stiffer requirements for transferring these individuals to other countries. On Ukraine, it calls for arming Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists, a move the Obama administration has so far resisted.
The administration also opposes measures that aim to bypass the Iraqi government and give money directly to Iraqi Kurdish fighters. That has angered Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who threatened to attack U.S. interests if the provision passes.
The Senate version follows the same approach as the House to funding the military. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 22-4 on Thursday to authorize $523 billion in base funding for the Defense Department and other national security programs and an additional $90.2 billion for the emergency war-fighting fund.