The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee broke with President Obama Tuesday and struck a deal with Republicans on the contentious issue of handling and prosecuting terrorism-suspect detainees, clearing the way for the defense-policy bill to be voted on next week.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, signed off on a compromise with Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican, to allow the military to have custody of terrorism-suspect detainees except in cases where the administration makes "a national-security determination" to keep the detainee in civilian custody. The agreement also allows for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to approve a transfer of a military detainee to civilian court for trial.
The deal carves out an exception for members of al Qaeda or their allies, but the White House only agreed to part of it — allowing the military to hold al Qaeda members captured outside the U.S. The administration disagrees with the committee's decision to allow the military to hold al Qaeda members detained domestically.
The Armed Services Committee had approved the defense-policy bill in June, but the detainee provisions remained a sticking point, and had prevented the bill from reaching the Senate floor. The committee met Tuesday and approved the new language on a 26-0 vote.
But it does not have universal support, and the Democratic chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees said they weren't consulted.
"The bill reported by the Armed Services Committee today does little to resolve our stated concerns and those of the administration about mandatory military custody, including the potential for this bill to create operational confusion and problems in the field," Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy and Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. "We have said before that these proposals are unwise and will harm our national security. That is as true today as it ever has been."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and the lead author of several military commission measures, said members of Armed Services Committee wanted the U.S. military to handle the al Qaeda detainees so they can interrogate them and glean vital intelligence.
The Obama administration wants the FBI to have unfettered access to suspected al Qaeda terrorism suspects detained in the U.S. for its own interrogation purposes.
The two sides worked with the White House to try to address its concerns, but in the end, administration officials were not satisfied and refused to sign off on the deal, Mr. McCain told reporters Tuesday.
The Obama administration, as well as the chairmen of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, strongly oppose mandatory military custody for terrorism suspects detained on U.S. soil, arguing that only civilian law enforcement agencies should operate domestically.
Capitol Hill aides and members of the panel were closely guarding other details and changes to the detainee language as of late Tuesday afternoon, and key Senate Democrats were refraining from commenting until they had time to review the changes themselves.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
In May, the White House threatened to veto the annual must-pass defense-authorization bill over language limiting the president's ability to transfer detainees overseas or try them in civilian court.
As the deal was being finalized Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wants the Senate to vote on the defense bill before Thanksgiving.
He acknowledged the divisions in his own party, but said at this point the best solution is to put the bill on the floor and have lawmakers work their will by voting.
The defense bill is considered one of the few must-pass non-spending bills Congress considers each year, but it had languished for months as the two sides tried to work out the detainee issue.
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