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.
“My belief is that we made changes that will address their concerns, and they’re looking at it,” Smith said. “But I don’t know.”
Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday that lawmakers “had numerous meetings with the administration,” including FBI Director Robert Mueller, and “we feel that we were able to satisfy, we hope, most of their concerns.”
The back-and-forth between the White House and Congress stands in stark contrast to last year, when the administration worked closely with Levin and others to pass the bill and a separate measure carved out of the authorization bill that repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay service members.
Human rights groups maintain their opposition to the measure, charging the conference report still allows for indefinite detention. Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union said “all the core dangers” remain in the bill.
“Based on suspicion alone, no place and no person is off-limits to military detention without charge or trial,” he said in a statement. “The House and Senate should vote ‘no’ when it comes to a floor vote this week. And President Obama should get his veto pen ready for this dangerous bill that could end up on his desk as soon as this weekend.”
The House and Senate conferees tamped down on the veto talk during their joint briefing Monday night and again to reporters on Tuesday. Levin, like McCain, said the conference report should address White House concerns. But if a veto is handed down, the Michigan Democrat said he was unsure whether Congress has the votes to override it.
Asked whether the Senate had enough votes to override a veto, McCain said, “You know, there may be.
“You’d have to ask the Democrats, because that’s who he would be calling on because certainly he wouldn’t get any Republican votes to sustain a veto,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.