Defense Bill Passes Senate, Faces Veto Threat

June 17, 2016

The Senate passed the FY17 Defense Authorization Bill (S. 2943) on Tuesday after hundreds of amendments fell victim to a Senate rule that lets one senator hold up all amendment action.

When Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) found his amendment (to prevent unlimited detention of US citizens with links to terrorism suspects) blocked, he raised objections to every other amendment, effectively stymying any further amendment action. That killed the chances for MOAA-supported amendments to upgrade force levels and the 2017 pay raise, delete proposed housing allowance cuts, expand concurrent receipt eligibility and more.

Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fumed on the Senate floor that one senator could kill much-needed amendments - including some he said were literally a matter of life and death - and called it a “shameful chapter” in Senate history.

Compounding the defense bill's rocky road to enactment, the White House issued a statement last week citing a litany of objections it has to the Senate-passed bill, including provisions on pay and benefits.

TFL fees. In calling for changes to TRICARE, the statement said, “The Administration is disappointed that the legislation does not include a modest enrollment fee for TRICARE for Life.” In its budget request earlier in the year, the administration wanted to impose a fee up to 2 percent of retired pay for TFL beneficiaries.

Housing Allowances. The administration also objected to controversial changes to the basic allowance for housing (BAH) system, saying the changes would “return the allowance to its distorted state from the mid-1990s, and reinstitute a burdensome and inefficient administrative-authorization process.” The administration rightly noted changes to the structure of BAH “would disproportionately affect female service members and those military families in which both military members have chosen to serve their country.” (See MOAA's views on this topic in this month's “ As I See It” column.)

Military Health System Reform. The statement objected to plans in both the House and Senate bills that would place responsibility for military health care under the Defense Health Agency rather than leaving the services to manage their separate systems.

Commissary Privatization. The administration took issue with a proposal by the Senate Armed Services Committee to conduct a test of privatizing commissaries at up to five locations. That provision has since been dropped from the bill.

This is the eighth time the administration has threatened to veto the annual defense bill. But President Obama actually followed through on the threat only once.

Use of Veto

 

So what comes next? Senate lawmakers now must work with their House counterparts to iron out hundreds of differences in their respective bills, including dramatically different provisions on TRICARE fee changes and housing allowance rates.

The timeline for completion of that considerable task could be anywhere from the end of July to the end of October…or later.

 

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