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Defense Bill Still Subject to Veto Pen

Recent Bipartisan Effort May Not Save Measure

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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Congress is poised to easily approve a defense authorization bill this week but still might face an indelicate face-off with the White House over language relating to military detainees.

Bipartisan support of the annual measure stands in stark contrast to the other bills on which Members are still trying to find a path forward before they leave for the holidays.

The support for the defense bill was on display Monday after the conference reported out its bill and then again on Tuesday, when leaders of the Armed Services committees in both chambers said they had done what they could to address White House concerns.

The House is poised to consider the $662 billion defense bill today, with the Senate expected to follow suit Thursday. The bill bars the Defense Department from transferring certain detainees, including those in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.

It gives the executive branch power to determine whether a detainee should be tried in civilian or military court but requires that terrorism suspects linked to al-Qaida, including those captured within the U.S., be held in military custody. The measure provides for a national security waiver the administration can use to get around that requirement, though.

The Obama administration has insisted the legislation not interfere with federal law enforcement efforts to fight terrorism, and it reiterated its concerns after the Senate passed its own defense measure with compromise language on the matter earlier this month. Even after the tweaks in the conference reports, President Barack Obama’s veto threat remains a possibility.

“Well, it’s true that they have made some changes,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “They were released last night, and we’re looking at that language. The statement of administration principle that, ‘any bill that challenges or constrains the president’s critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation would prompt the president’s senior advisers to recommend a veto.’ So we’re in the process of reviewing the changes that were made to the legislation and to see if those changes address the concerns that we have.”

“We obviously worked on a very bipartisan basis on this committee,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at Monday night’s briefing.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services panel, said Monday: “I feel that we have a good bill, certainly not everything in it as I would have done it, but that’s the nature of a collaborative process.”

Smith had been a strong critic against detainee language in the Senate reauthorization, which also drew a veto threat from the White House. Smith said changes in the conference report approved Monday by 52 of 55 conferees addressed his concerns, but whether they are enough to stave off a veto is another question.

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