- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Congress is daring President Obama to veto the annual defense policy bill after negotiators struck a deal Tuesday that would continue to prohibit him from transferring suspected terrorist detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for another year.

The bill also imposes sanctions on Iran’s energy and shipping industries, creates cybersecurity reporting requirements for defense contractors, calls for a 1.7 percent pay raise for the troops, and trims back the administration’s request for service members and veterans to pay higher health care fees.

Under the compromise bill hammered out by House and Senate negotiators, the Defense Department also would begin paying for abortions for troops or their families in cases of rape or incest. Current law limits payment to cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

But it’s the terrorist detention provisions that are likely to spark the biggest fight with the White House where Mr. Obama, after repeatedly accepting restrictions, drew a line this year, saying he was tired of Congress tying his hands.

Negotiators from the House and Senate armed services committees emerged from closed-door meetings Tuesday, where they hammered out the compromise bill, to say they hoped the president would accept their deal.

“The president has to weigh their objection to a one-year reauthorization of existing law with all the other aspects of a defense authorization,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The bill will be on the House floor for a vote Thursday then head to the Senate. It is considered one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation Congress tackles every year, and it regularly produces a series of battles between the two parties and between Congress and the White House, which jealously guards the president’s role as commander in chief.

One of those fights this year is over whether the military can detain someone apprehended in the U.S. indefinitely and without charge or trial.

Last year’s version seemed to grant the administration the right to indefinitely detain even U.S. citizens apprehended here if they are deemed to be fighting the U.S. as part of the war on terrorism, and a number of lawmakers in both parties had hoped to clear that up in this year’s bill.

The negotiators agreed on a statement that reaffirms everyone in the U.S. has habeas corpus rights in federal courts.

But Christopher Anders, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new language isn’t the clear statement he was looking for from Congress.

“Habeas is not the same thing as saying you have a right to only be imprisoned if you’re charged with a crime,” he said.

Rep. Robert E. Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat who was part of the House team of negotiators, said he thinks the bill does clear up things somewhat.

“I think it’s better than last year,” he said. “Last year’s bill suggested there were circumstances under which the executive branch could indefinitely detain persons, including persons seized on American soil. A lot of us felt that was inappropriate.”

He said he reads the new language to reassert Fifth Amendment due process protections, and said that could even apply to American citizens captured overseas.

Mr. McCain pointed to a case in World War II when German saboteurs were captured in the U.S., tried in a military commission and executed, including one U.S. citizen.

“That was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. That still holds,” he said, though he said the issue is complicated in the current fight because the war on terrorism has no clear definite ending.

The White House did not respond to a request Tuesday for comment on the legislation or its veto threat of the Guantanamo Bay transfer issues.

About 166 detainees were still housed at the detention facility in Cuba as of last month.

Mr. Obama took office in 2009 promising to close the prison within a year, but has failed to make good on that pledge. His administration has identified a prison it would like to use in Illinois to house detainees, but Congress has repeatedly blocked him from designating the prison as a detention facility and banned him from bringing any of the detainees to U.S. soil.

Congress also has required the administration to make certain certifications before it can transfer detainees to other countries — a bar that the administration says is so high that it has halted those transfers.

That led to his veto threat earlier this year.

“Since these restrictions have been on the books, they have limited the executive’s ability to manage military operations in an ongoing armed conflict, harmed the country’s diplomatic relations with allies and counterterrorism partners, and provided no benefit whatsoever to our national security,” the White House budget office said in its official statement of policy.