President Obama’s plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay took another hit Tuesday as Congress passed the annual defense policy bill that keeps in place a ban on shipping any of the terrorist suspects to the U.S.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly objected to those constraints, and has even issued veto threats — but the White House said Tuesday he will sign the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act despite his misgivings.
“There are a number of provisions in the NDAA that are important to protecting and running the country,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said after the Senate cleared the bill on a 91-3 vote.
The House passed it the previous week on a similarly lopsided 370-58 vote, signaling Mr. Obama would have had a hard time sustaining his veto if he’d picked a fight.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill fear the president is preparing an end-run around Congress and will try to close the prison by executive order, flouting the language of the defense policy bill that specifically bans transfers of detainees to the U.S., prohibits building a prison to hold them on U.S. soil and makes it difficult to ship them to other countries.
The White House has refused to rule out such an order, stoking GOP fears.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who has fought to maintain the detention facility at Guantanamo, said the provisions stopping transfers have been included in bills when Democrats controlled Congress, when power was split and now when the GOP controls both chambers.
“This is not something that the American people want to see happen with Guantanamo. And so the president needs to follow the law, and the law is very clear on this,” she said.
Minutes after approving the defense policy bill, the Senate also passed its first spending bill for 2016, clearing a measure to fund the Veterans Affairs Department and construction within the Defense Department.
That bill also contains a provision prohibiting construction of any prison in the U.S. to house detainees. It passed 93-0.
The VA-military construction measure is the first spending bill to clear the Senate this year.
Democrats had earlier filibustered to gum up the process as they and Republicans feuded over the total amount of money to be spent. Last month’s budget deal allocated an additional $25 billion this year for domestic needs and $25 billion for defense, clearing the way for both the VA spending bill and the Pentagon policy bill.
Mr. Obama had vetoed an earlier version of the NDAA, citing the funding dispute, but Republicans said this new bill is almost the exact same.
The NDAA includes a pay raise for the troops, and settles hundreds of other military issues, ranging from which weapons systems get built to tackling mental health issues among service members.
Just three senators voted against the bill: Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Oregon Democrats, and Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who is running for Democrats’ presidential nomination.
The vote could come back to haunt Mr. Sanders should he win that nomination, just as a key defense vote did to then-Sen. John F. Kerry, Democrats’ nominee in the 2004 presidential election.
Mr. Sanders, who has called for hundreds of billions of dollars in new domestic spending, defended his vote against the defense bill as a strike against government waste.
“This bloated Pentagon budget continues to pour money into outdated weapons systems that don’t function properly. The Department of Defense is the only federal agency that cannot pass a clean audit,” he said. “Virtually every defense contractor has been found guilty or has reached a settlement with the government because of fraudulent and illegal activities. This has got to change.”
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this article.