In what was only his fifth veto as President, Barack Obama has declined to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This means the bill will not become law unless both Senate and House override the President by a two-third majority.

The NDAA that comes with a price tag of $612 billion was designed by Republicans to exempt military spending from the large cuts that were put in place as a consequence of the fight between the White House and Congress over US deficits in previous years. These regular confrontations on the size of the budget, and the deficits needed to finance government spending, have threatened to shut down the US government several times during Obama’s tenure as President. Before it came to the President’s desk, the bill had passed with overwhelming support in both houses of congress.

The President, however, sees flaws in the bill. First, because it uses the somewhat awkward route of tapping the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations war fund (OCO) as a funding source.
The OCO fund has very little oversight and is not subject to the sequestration cuts that limited spending for all other departments in 2013. It was originally created to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has very little Congressional oversight.
This allows the military to get around some of the limitations that were agreed as part of wider budget cut measures. Denying the DoD this road to raise extra funds is therefore, according to the President, part of the endeavor to return to a more responsible fiscal policy. Secondly he fears that the bill would make it harder for him to finally close down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, which was opened after 9/11 to hold enemy combatants that couldn’t be processed through the US justice system.

It is also likely that Obama believes signing the bill now will worsen his positions in the months ahead, when other parts of the budget will again become the centre of intense fights between Democrats and Republicans. A new round of negotiations is coming up soon and the Republicans have traditionally defended the DoD’s spending while calling for cuts in all other departments. He therefore prefers to go into the battle with Republicans without making any prior concessions and hopes to find a solution, that “properly funds our national security as well as economic security.”

Addressing the military budget later, as part of the overall negotiations on government spending, gives Obama more leverage to defend other programs Republicans might want to slash. Had he signed the bill now, that would have left him with no bullets for the arguably bigger fight later on as Republicans would already have gotten all the spending they wanted in the next budget.

In a joint statement John McCain and other lawmakers have called the veto “reckless, cynical and downright dangerous.”

The bill will now go back to the House, where Republicans hope to override the veto in a vote that is scheduled for Nov. 5. Given that they now need a two-thirds majority to do so, it is doubtful that they will succeed. While many Democrats voted for the original bill, going directly against a presidential veto is a different matter entirely.