The Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to give President Obama more flexibility to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay into the U.S. or to other countries, moving to grant some of the powers the administration is seeking.
"There are still restrictions, but there is greater flexibility," committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said after emerging from a closed-door meeting where the committee approved the annual defense policy bill.
Meanwhile, across the Capitol working on their own version, House lawmakers shot down an effort to prevent indefinite detention of those captured on U.S. territory.
The defense policy bill is considered must-pass legislation and becomes a vehicle for big policy fights, particularly at a time when the U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan and is contemplating a deeper role in assisting the rebels in Syria.
Both the House and Senate bills took steps to try to curb what Mr. Levin called a "plague of sexual assaults" within the military in recent years.
The House bill would impose mandatory minimum sentences for those troops found guilty of sexual assault, including dismissal from the military.
The Senate bill, meanwhile, tries to bring accountability into the process of deciding whether to prosecute charges of sexual assault by having a superior officer — in most cases a general or an admiral — review any decision not to prosecute. Senators said general officers are more likely to pursue the cases than lawyers.
In a surprising move, House lawmakers voted to back Mr. Obama's plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The 305-121 vote also called for the president to come back to Congress for approval if he decides to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
On the question of detainees, the House bill keeps the restrictions on Mr. Obama's ability to transfer them from the base at Guantanamo, Cuba, to prisons in the U.S. or to other countries.
In a speech last month the president said it was time to rededicate the country to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo, and said he would take the steps he could to begin sending inmates to their home countries.
The White House has threatened to veto any bill that includes restrictions on his transfer authority — though Mr. Obama has issued a similar threat before, but backed off and signed the legislation in the end.
While the Senate bill includes some more leeway, both sides said they expect a fight over the provisions when the legislation comes to the full Senate floor.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the facility on the coast of Cuba — part of an base the U.S. has leased from the island nation since 1903 — is a valuable tool that must be preserved.
"I see it as a great asset, a great resource we need to be using to the fullest," the Oklahoma senator said.
He said when voters back home hear that detainees could be transferred to the U.S., he believes they will call their senators and that the transfer provisions will be defeated.
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