Congress Prepares to Enact NDAA After Trump’s Veto

President Donald J. Trump vetoed the $741 billion defense policy bill on Dec. 23 after threatening to derail the bipartisan annual legislation. Congress has pledged to override the veto in votes next week.

“I am returning, without my approval, H.R. 6395 … My administration recognizes the importance of the act to our national security. Unfortunately, the act fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by my administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions. It is a ‘gift’ to China and Russia,” the President wrote.

The fiscal 2021 legislation authorizes $740.5 billion in spending for the Pentagon and other national security programs through Sept. 30, 2021. It hit last-minute hurdles as Trump demanded Congress include an unrelated provision to end legal protections for social media companies. He also opposes the bill over its language to start the process of renaming military installations that honor Confederate icons, like Fort Bragg, N.C.

The National Defense Authorization Act was set to become law at midnight Dec. 24 if President Donald J. Trump did not act on it sooner. Both chambers of Congress passed the bill earlier this month, starting a 10-day countdown during which the President needed to sign or reject the measure before it was automatically enacted.

The NDAA is seen as must-pass legislation because it enables specialty combat pay that affects thousands of military families, among other key provisions. It has been signed into law every year for nearly six decades with bipartisan support and the backing of the President.

The House and Senate are respectively set to return to Washington and hold override votes on Dec. 28 and 29, a House aide confirmed. Another congressional staffer said a “pocket veto”— in which a presidential rejection kills a bill because Congress is out of session and cannot override the decision—is not in play because lawmakers can accept a veto during pro forma sessions.

There’s no hard deadline to hold those override votes, the congressional staffer said Dec. 23, though the arrival of a new Congress on Jan. 3, 2021, does complicate matters. If the NDAA has not wrapped up by then, lawmakers could briefly delay gaveling in the new session until the bill is finalized. If still not done once the 117th Congress takes office, the staffer believes that a new group of lawmakers would have to retrace the steps of the legislative process to again send it to Trump’s desk.

If the NDAA is not in place by New Year’s Day, the lapse could derail funding for the Navy’s Columbia-class nuclear submarines, civilian employee pay, military construction projects, and more, the congressional staffer said. It may also halt operations at Armed Forces Retirement Homes.

“The late decision to veto the NDAA puts our service members at a disadvantage in an environment of unprecedented peer threats to our security,” said AFA President and retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright. “Our Airmen and Guardians—and also Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines—volunteered to die, if necessary, in defense of our country. That’s their jobs. It’s the jobs of our elected leaders to fund their activities. We thank those leaders and their staffs for their hard work and leadership so far. They now owe our our warfighters and the American people an NDAA that ensures our nation’s security. They are collectively responsible for the unprecedented situation we now find ourselves in—and they are therefore collectively responsible for resolving it.” 

Trump’s decision has frustrated Republican allies who tried to convince him to follow through on signing the bill.

“The NDAA has become law every year for 59 years straight because it’s absolutely vital to our national security and our troops. This year must not be an exception. Our men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform shouldn’t be denied what they need—ever,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Dec. 23 release. 

Inhofe urged lawmakers to find another legislative vehicle to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as Trump wanted to do in the NDAA.

“Trump has made it clear that he does not care about the needs of our military personnel and their families,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), head of the House Armed Services Committee. “If the FY21 NDAA does not become law, more than 100,000 federal employees will be deprived of the paid parental leave benefits they deserve, necessary military construction projects will not move forward on schedule, and our service members who are in harm’s way defending our country’s principles will not have access to the hazard pay they are owed.”

Defense industry players also quickly began to decry the move.

“There is no more essential duty for the American government than to ensure the safety and security of its people. The President’s veto undermines our national security preparedness and jeopardizes the jobs of Americans who make up our defense industrial base at a time when the country is in crisis,” Aerospace Industries Association President and Chief Executive Officer Eric Fanning said in a release. “We urge Congress to prioritize national security and override this veto.”

First enacting defense funds—part of the massive omnibus spending bill also awaiting Trump’s signature—would stave off some of the problems prompted by a lack of NDAA, the staffer said. The omnibus appropriations bill could continue paying for programs whose authorization under previous legislation has not yet expired, but spending for other items must stop without a new policy bill in place to allow it.

The future of that $1.4 trillion omnibus, together with the nearly $900 billion coronavirus pandemic relief legislation, was thrown into question Dec. 22 when Trump released a video criticizing pieces of the package. The Republican President called for $2,000 economic stimulus checks to support Americans instead of the agreed-upon $600 payments, which reportedly surprised even his own legislative team spearheading the effort. Democrats also back the larger sum.

It’s unclear what the timeline is for Trump to approve or veto the so-called “coronabus” package, passed by the House and Senate Dec. 21. A 10-day clock for automatic enactment, not including Sundays, starts once Congress sends the paperwork to the White House for Trump’s consideration. That process could also stretch into the next Congress, which typically does not have to juggle these issues with both a new set of lawmakers and a new President in town.

The federal government remains open through Dec. 28 under another continuing resolution while the omnibus is in limbo—three months after the fiscal year began Oct. 1. Lawmakers will need to pass another CR to avoid a shutdown unless the spending package is enacted in time.

“President Trump should sign the bill and get [House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] to agree to the $2,000,” Henry Connelly, communications director for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Dec. 23 when asked about potential next steps for the omnibus-pandemic relief legislation. 

The Department of the Air Force’s $169 billion wish list was largely granted in the 2021 authorization and appropriations bills. Lawmakers green-lit many Air Force and Space Force priorities but did reverse plans to phase out production of key aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper drone and to ditch the A-10 attack plane.

Congress approved a spending bill with $32.8 billion for Active-duty Airmen, $33.5 billion for Active-duty operations and maintenance, $45.3 billion for procurement, and $36.4 billion for research and development in the base budget. The Space Force’s base budget would receive $2.5 billion for O&M, $2.3 billion for procurement, and $10.5 billion for R&D as well.

Millions more dollars were offered under the Overseas Contingency Operations budget intended for counterterrorism missions.

Lawmakers also call for periodic briefings from Air Force officials on the service’s plan to address its pilot shortage, as well as a C-130 fleet management plan, a strategy for the Advanced Battle Management System, and more.

A more unusual provision directs the Air Force Secretary to work with the National Institutes of Health to rehome chimpanzees that live on Air Force property. The Alamogordo Daily News recently reported that two chimps used for experiments at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., have died, leaving 37 more at an NIH-run facility on base.

Nearly 100 chimpanzees have moved to a sanctuary from Holloman’s Alamogordo Primate Facility, the publication said.