UPDATED with Thornberry response
CAPITOL HILL: The $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 passed the Senate by a vote of 71 to 25 today. The final version could emerge from a House-Senate conference in “early July,” Senate Armed Services chairman Jon McCain said boldly at a press conference this afternoon. That would be a staggering speed for a bill that usually passes very late in the fall, after the fiscal year it covers has begun.
This is the earliest the NDAA has gotten to the Senate floor in many years, McCain said, praising Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The plan is to keep up that pace.
“I’m totally convinced we can get the bill back out of conference in July, probably early July. There are not significant differences,” Sen. McCain said.
On issues such as weapons acquisition, McCain acknowledged, “our reforms go quite a bit further than those in the House bill, but I have a very close working relationship with the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and I am confident [that] we can resolve those quickly.”
“Chairman [Mac] Thornberry has a long and extensive experience. particularly at acquisition reform,” McCain said. “We are both in agreement that reform is badly needed when we look at these outrageous and disgraceful cost overruns.”
[UPDATE: Friday morning, Thornberry issued a statement praised McCain’s bill and pledging to work with him, although Mac was mum on the prospect of a July conference. “At a particularly perilous time in our history, it is encouraging that both the House and the Senate have passed an NDAA that contains important reforms with strong, bipartisan majorities,” Thornberry said. “I look forward to continuing to work closely with Senator McCain and Senator Reed in Conference.”
That mention of Sen. Reed, however, is a reminder that McCain doesn’t just have to convince his fellow Republican Thornberry.]
The top Democrats on both Armed Services Committees — Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Adam Smith — both voted against the NDAA, a rare move on the bipartisan committees and one taken with great reluctance. At issue was not any difference on defense policy but a fundamental question of funding. Republicans bypassed the Budget Control Act spending caps (the so-called sequester) by shoving nearly $90 billion into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, designating routine spending as an emergency war expenses exempted from the caps.
This gimmick got President Barack Obama the amount of funding he requested but left the caps in place on domestic spending, a Democratic priority, so Obama has pledged to veto the bill. But the Senate vote of 71 to 5 is a veto-proof majority, while the House vote of 269-151 comes close (62 percent). Even more than most years, a veto would be a nuclear option.
Updated Friday at 9:40 am