A giant defense bill that breaks budget caps to give extra funding for the military cleared a key procedural hurdle Tuesday despite facing a presidential veto threat and initial uncertainty it would have enough votes to pass.
That was good news for Republican presidential aspirant Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida who decided to skip the vote to stay on the campaign trail in New Hampshire even though it was unclear if the bill would reach the 60 votes needed to proceed.
On a bipartisan vote of 73 to 26, the Senate moved forward the $612 billion bill that sets spending levels and policy changes at the Pentagon. Final passage is expected later this week. The bill passed the House last week with modest Democratic support.
The vote took an hour and a half to complete while the two parties simultaneously held their weekly policy lunches. By the midway point, eight Democrats had gone to the floor to vote for the measure. That provided the Republicans with the 60 votes they needed to approve the motion. Most of the remaining Democrats didn't vote until after their meeting.
Key Democrats voted no, like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Jack Reid, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Before the vote, the outcome was considered too close to call by aides in both parties. Had it failed, Rubio -- who has missed more votes than any other candidate for the White House -- could have drawn the ire of his colleagues and the scrutiny of voters. Just Monday in a CNBC interview, he explained his decision to miss so many votes.
"If there is a vote where my vote is going to make a difference or an issue of major national significance and importance, we'd do everything possible to be there," Rubio said. "But I am going to miss votes, I'm running for president ... When I miss a vote, it's not because I'm out playing golf. We're out campaigning for the future of America where I believe I can make more of a difference as president than I could as a senator."
Rubio might have thought it would pass easily since it got 71 votes when it first passed the Senate in June. Since then, the veto threat was issued and Democratic leaders have pushed to defeat the bill.
One Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted against it.
Many Democrats are skeptical of the defense bill because they don't want to ditch the budget limits on defense spending without a correlating increase in domestic programs. They have blocked all the annual appropriations bills in the Senate to protest this unequal treatment of defense and non-defense spending.
"Let's have some balance here," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. "We want to give our troops the very best treatment but we certainly don't want to shortchange the other side of government, the non-defense side."
Democrats also oppose the decision by Republicans to add the extra $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which does not count against the budget. Democrats describe this as a gimmick. While many Republicans didn't disagree, they said it was worth doing to meet the needs of the military at a time of great unrest and uncertainty around the globe.
"I hated sequestration," said Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, just before the vote. "I think sequestration is doing permanent damage, or is at risk of doing permanent damage, of our ability to (defend) this nation at a time when there are more crises in this world than World War II."
Despite the lopsided victory for Republicans, Reid said that he still expects to prevent Republicans from overriding a presidential veto, which needs 67 votes.
"Our Democrats have stated without any question that if it comes time to sustain a presidential veto, that will be done," Reid said.
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