On Friday, the annual defense policy measure overwhelmingly passed the House by a vote of 375 to 34, with most chamber Democrats backing the legislation despite the $619 billion price tag coming in several billion dollars over White House requests.
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., called the measure an “excellent bill” even though he has spoken against oversized defense budgets.
Before the vote, he noted that “we do not have an infinite amount of money” but added that “we're going to keep working hard to figure out how to make that money go as far as possible.”
Earlier this week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not say whether Obama will follow through on past threats to veto any defense budget measures that work around congressionally mandated spending caps on military and non-military spending.
At issue is $3.2 billion in extra funding that Republican lawmakers inserted into temporary war funding to get around those caps. Nearly all of the extra money is set aside for additional personnel costs, including a larger pay raise for troops and boosts to force end strengths in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, called those costs critical to the health of the force.
“(This bill) provides the full pay raise to which the troops are statutorily entitled for the first time in six years,” he said. “It stops the (drawdowns) of military personnel which have been going on and at least prevents it from getting any worse. It starts to stabilize the readiness problems that are making it more and more difficult for our troops to accomplish their mission.”
Obama has objected to much larger funding adds in past drafts of the bill, money for equipment and modernization that Thornberry says he hopes President-elect Donald Trump will back next year.
But tying the smaller increase to military personnel issues makes a presidential veto less politically palatable, especially in the waning days of Obama’s presidency. Senate Democrats have also signaled they will not object to the extra money authorized in the measure, despite past opposition.
The House vote margin would be more than enough to override a presidential veto.
Past veto threats on the measure also focused on a host of provisions since dropped from the final legislative draft, including language regarding discrimination in federal contractor hiring and environmental protection issues.
If the measure becomes law, it will set the 2017 military pay raise at 2.1 percent, 0.5 percentage points above what the White House and Pentagon had requested.
A 1.6 percent pay increase amounts to a $400 yearly pay boost for most junior enlisted troops and up to $1,500 more in annual pay for midcareer officers. The higher 2.1 percent level in the authorization bill boosts that to around $525 a year for junior enlisted and just under $2,000 for midcareer officers.
On end strength, the measure would fund 476,000 soldiers for the Army, about 16,000 more than the White House had requested for fiscal 2017. The Marine Corps would be at 185,000 troops, an increase of about 3,000 over requested levels. The Air Force would go to 321,000 airmen, around 4,000 more than Obama wanted.
The Navy would maintain 324,000 sailors.
In addition, the authorization bill includes an overhaul of the defense health care system, transferring control of most military medical facilities to the Defense Health Agency and adding new fees for enrollment in Tricare.
But those fees would go into effect only for new enlistees. All current troops and retirees in the system would not see any increases.
The Senate is expected to pass the authorization measure early next week.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .