After dropping some popular immigration-enforcement measures, Congress on Tuesday passed the 2010 homeland security spending bill that gives President Obama the authority to transfer terrorism-suspect detainees to the United States for trial, though only after he submits a plan to Congress.
The Senate voted 79-19 to pass the $44.1 billion bill, following the House’s approval last week. Mr. Obama is expected to sign it.
“It has been eight years, eight long years since the attacks of 9/11. There are some people in this country who have become complacent about the threat of another attack. Don’t count me as one of them,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and the lead Senate author of the bill.
The spending bill funds more than 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents, pays for more border security technology and extends the E-Verify program, which allows businesses to check a government database to make sure their new workers are legal. But it doesn’t require further construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
All but one of the 19 senators who voted against the bill were Republicans. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana was the sole Democrat. They argued it would give Mr. Obama too much leeway to bring terrorism suspects from the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States for trial.
“We have a perfectly good and secure courtroom at Guantanamo Bay to try these individuals,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican.
Those Republicans said there is no good process for putting terrorists on trial in the United States. But Democrats said there are many precedents.
“History says otherwise. Over 350 convicted terrorists have been tried in our courts and are being held in our prisons today,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “Is America less safe because of it? No, we are safer.”
Senators on both sides pointed to the hurdles Mr. Obama would have to go through to bring terrorism suspects to the United States, including that they must be brought only if the administration is ready to prosecute them.
Another fight is still pending on another spending bill over an amendment that would prevent those suspected of being directly involved in planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from being brought to the United States for trial.
The homeland security spending bill also delivers a setback to civil libertarians seeking to force the release of new detainee- abuse photos. The bill allows the defense secretary to prevent the release of the photos if he deems their release harmful to national security.
The bill funds border security and extends the E-Verify program for three years. But Democrats, in hammering out the final bill, dropped Senate-passed measures that would have put E-Verify on permanent footing and allowed businesses to check not only new employees, but their existing work force as well.
“This is the third time this Congress and the leadership in this Congress have either removed, changed or blocked attempts to make this successful program permanent,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican.
The bill also doesn’t include a mandate to continue building the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Environmentalists groups cheered the omission, saying it could mark a change in border-security strategy.
Still, senators said the past few years have seen major advances in immigration enforcement, including the resources to allow the Border Patrol to have effective control over 729 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile-long border. In 2005, the Border Patrol claimed control over just 253 miles.