Tsongas backs Obama veto of Defense Authorization bill

President Barack Obama had vetoed just four bills before last week – a small fraction of other modern Presidents’ use of the power. But he chalked up number five last Thursday, rejecting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that provides military spending for the coming year.

That was welcome news to Lowell Congresswoman Niki Tsongas. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee – and as an assigned member of the Conference Committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions of NDAA – Tsongas has been deeply involved in the bill for months.

There are quite a few elements in it that she has fought hard for. But, she says, the bill’s funding mechanism is unacceptable.

The federal government is still operating under so-called “sequester” funding restrictions imposed in 2013. To provide extra for military spending, the NDAA bill adds $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations account. Obama called this a “gimmick”; Tsongas has called it a “slush fund.”

Obama gave other reasons for rejecting the bill as well. But Tsongas, speaking to me a few hours after the veto, emphasized the one-time “off-budget funding” as the key sticking point for her. Military leaders, she said, “need long-term stability. This compromises their ability to plan.”

Republicans, however, say that the veto unnecessarily blocks crucial funding from reaching the military. And some are arguing that Obama is trying to tie NDAA into the broader budgeting debate, which is due to come to a head by December 12 when the current continuing resolution expires.

They will attempt to override the veto, but are unlikely to have the necessary votes to do that.

“We still have a lot of time” to work out a new version of the bill before the New Year, Tsongas says. “This does not mean that it’s over.”

And she has reason to hope that’s true. Tsongas was happy with a number of things included in the final bill, including new efforts addressing sexual assault in the military; and funding for research facilities that could bring jobs to Massachusetts.

And, she’s unimpressed with the Benghazi hearings

Tsongas used to be the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations – which held a series of classified briefings on the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

She was critical then of the unceasing interest of Republicans in the matter, so it’s no surprise that she had little tolerance last Thursday for the special committee’s grilling of Hillary Clinton.

“The select committee, from the outset, has been unnecessary, redundant, and… politically motivated,” she told me.

Tsongas had seen only a little of Clinton’s testimony, but thought the former Secretary of State “appeared very strong and resolute.”

And she expected nothing new and noteworthy to come out of the spectacle. They were rehashing things already covered in the classified hearings she attended, Tsongas says, and “there was no smoking gun.”

Reversal of fortune: praise for Baker, criticism for Obama

It’s not every day you get liberal members of the Massachusetts delegation praising Charlie Baker and criticizing Barack Obama. That was the case on October 15th.

First came Senator Ed Markey applauding Baker, the Republican Governor, for the substance-abuse bill he filed at the statehouse that day.

Markey praised Baker’s “important legislation, and his ongoing commitment to address the devastating epidemic of prescription drug and heroin addiction.”

It’s a sign of the emerging collaborative, multi-level approach to the opiate problem, that I have written about before in this column.

The scope of the problem was emphasized by a report released last week by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). It showed that 414 people in the state died of overdoses in the first three months of 2015 – a nearly 20 percent increase from the same period a year before.

For his part, Markey has introduced federal bills regarding training and oversight of opioid prescribers, and funding for states to help substance abusers.

The various efforts received a big boost from President Obama last week – on the same day of the DPH report – when he gave a speech on the opioid crisis in West Virginia, announcing new efforts his administration will take to address it.

But, back on the 15th, it was Obama’s foreign policy that drew concern from Worcester congressman Jim McGovern.

Obama announced that he will keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016. This reversed his plan to disengage militarily from that country.

“I am extremely troubled by President Obama’s announcement,” McGovern said in a statement. “Our mission in Afghanistan lacks the clarity that the American people and our brave men and women in uniform deserve.”

McGovern also renewed his call for Congress to vote on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

No repeal or replace, but a fix

If you didn’t realize that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – aka ObamaCare – got amended this month… well, that’s how New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen was able to make it happen.

In the continuing rancor from the right over that 2009 law, nothing short of repeal – or, in the words of some Republicans, “repeal and replace” – could hope to get through Congress. Or, at least none that the President would be likely to sign.

But there are plenty of suggestions for tweaking or changing parts of the law, if the political will allowed. That includes eliminating the ACA’s so-called “Cadillac plan” tax, and repealing the medical-device tax, as well as all manner of more technical alterations.

The change Shaheen focused on involves a provision scheduled to take effect in 2016. At the start of the year, businesses with up to 100 employees were to be put into the small-group insurance market, which now applies only to those with 50 or fewer workers.

That’s a big change, requiring a lot of companies to follow some potentially costly coverage mandates, and potentially raising premiums for small companies already in that pool.

Shaheen teamed with ObamaCare-hating Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina to quietly build a bipartisan coalition for allowing states to opt out of that 2016 change. They arranged to sneak the bill around potentially attention-drawing hearings and committee votes – and next thing you know, it had passed both the House and Senate without dissent, and Obama signed it.

The National Journal wrote that Shaheen and Scott had “achieved the unthinkable” in amending ACA.

Social media picture of the week

Rhode Island Historical Society Tweeted this picture of Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse as a baby in 1955 – and his colleague Jack Reed retweeted it in honor of Whitehouse’s 60th birthday. Whitehouse responded with a reminder that Reed, 65, is still the state’s “senior” Senator.

#OTD 1955: @SenWhitehouse, held here by his grandmother, Mary, in Newport (RIHS Aldrich Collection), is born. #HBD! pic.twitter.com/AS0nkRAHAo