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The Oklahoman: President Barack Obama, U.S. House skirmish over defense bill

May 18, 2016
News Stories

The Oklahoman - Chris Casteel

The House began debating its defense bill on Tuesday as the White House threatened a veto over several provisions, including some written by Oklahoma lawmakers.

The main source of conflict is — like last year — over the division of funds for basic Defense Department needs and war funding.

Meanwhile, a split also emerged between House and Senate Republicans on whether women should have to register for the draft.

Key House Republicans, including Rep. Tom Cole, of Moore, stripped a provision from the House defense bill to require women to begin Selective Service registration in 2018. But a similar provision in the Senate defense bill has strong support from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The annual defense bill sets congressional policy for the Pentagon and authorizes spending levels for personnel, weapons and operations; funding comes through the separate defense appropriations bill.

The Senate and House bills would boost military pay and add money for depot maintenance, such as that done at Tinker Air Force Base, while also embarking on multiyear reform efforts in Defense Department organization, health care and military justice.

White House objections

Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, said training and maintenance had been seriously underfunded in recent years and that the $602 billion bill "makes a huge down payment on the readiness of our forces."

The legislation takes $18 billion requested by the Obama administration for war funding and directs it to personnel, training and maintenance.

The White House budget office, in a veto threat message to the House, said shifting the money would cut off critical funding for the war against ISIS to pay for things not requested by the Defense Department.

"By gambling with war-fighting funds, the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens our enemies," the White House warned.

The White House objections also include Bridenstine's provisions to prevent the lesser prairie chicken from being listed as a threatened species and to prohibit the use of military installations to house minor children who cross the U.S. border unaccompanied by adults.

A provision by Rep. Steve Russell, R-Choctaw, regarding the religious liberty of defense contractors, drew fire from the White House, which said it would allow employers to discriminate with taxpayer-funded jobs.

Registering women

The requirement for women to register for the draft was removed by Republicans on the influential House Rules Committee as the bill was readied for debate.

Cole, whose district includes Tinker and the Army's Fort Sill, said, "The United States has not had a draft in more than 40 years, and it is unlikely that we will have one in the foreseeable future.

"The proposal to require that women register for the draft is a solution in search of a problem. Given those facts, I do not see the point in requiring women to register for a draft that almost certainly will not occur."

However, the Senate defense bill includes a similar provision that had strong Republican support in the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tried to remove the provision in a closed-door session, but lost by a vote of 7 to 19; Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, was among those supporting Lee.

All seven women on the Senate panel — including three Republicans — voted for the requirement.

The issue will likely have to be resolved when a House-Senate conference committee writes a final version of the bill.

Online: The Oklahoman