House lawmakers push for veto-proof majority on defense bill

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Defense committee leaders are counting on strong support to pass the 2021 defense authorization bill under threat of presidential veto, but concede that anything is possible.

The House is expected to vote on the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act Dec. 8, but leaders of the House Armed Services Committee are preparing to shore up enough votes to withstand a potential veto.

HASC Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters they're confident lawmakers will turn out the quorum needed to secure an override vote in case President Donald Trump follows through on his threat to veto the bill if it doesn't include a new provision, to address social media companies' liability issues under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Trump is also threatening a veto over a widely supported provision to rename military installations named for Confederate leaders.

Smith said "there are really no other possibilities" but for the NDAA to be passed in its current form to avoid disruptions to military training, pay, construction projects and other initiatives.

Smith said short-term damage of not passing the bill before January would hit military pay, disrupt military construction projects, training, and authorizations for certain programs.

"Sometimes we do a multi-year authorization for a bill and survive. Other times, it's up at this point, so there will be programs that we will have to stop on because there's not proper authorization," he said.

"The path for me is clear. We have an excellent bill," Smith told reporters Dec. 7. He added that a "skinny" bill incorporating only the most essential programs was "not an option."

The 'failed' CMO experiment

Eliminating the Pentagon's number three job, the chief management officer, is one of the biggest management shifts hinging on the passage of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

"It was something of an experiment that has failed," Thornberry said, largely because Congress asked the CMO to "do things that he or she did not have the authority to do. And so there was a mismatch between the responsibilities and the authorities that was fatally flawed."

Smith said he wasn't convinced that eliminating the position was a good idea, but said actualizing cost-savings and efficiencies is the primary concern.

"No matter how you sort of rearrange the chairs here, we're going to need to figure out how to more efficiently spend money," Smith said. "And if the CMO wasn't getting that done, then we're going to need something."

Smith said the language effectively gives the incoming Biden administration flexibility on how it wants to tackle the CMO role.

"The main thing we wanted to do was to keep open flexibility for the incoming Biden administration to structure that how they want," he said. "So basically, we'll be back to the drawing board and we'll see what the administration does, and we'll try to work in cooperation with them."

Thornberry, who is set to retire at the end of his current term, said shifting the CMO's responsibilities to the deputy defense secretary could be a solid option "to have a better alignment of what we want to happen and the authority to make it happen."

"We've got to keep our eye on this ball and keep pushing the department," Thornberry said, "to make better use of the resources they get from the taxpayers."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.

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