Despite veto threat, detainee provision advances in DOD bill

The Senate plans to finish work this week on a defense bill containing controversial provisions regarding the detention of terror suspects, which has drawn a veto threat from the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to hold a cloture vote Wednesday for the defense authorization bill, and the Senate hopes to wrap up the bill with a final vote by Thursday, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Monday.

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The march forward pits a Democratic committee chairman against the White House in an escalating dispute over new rules for military custody of al Qaeda terror suspects.

After the Armed Services Committee passed the bill 26-0 earlier this month, the White House threatened to veto it if the detainee portions were not altered.

Following two months of negotiations, the White House and Levin have not resumed talks over the detainee provisions since the bill was voted out of committee, Levin and an administration official told The Hill.

Levin is not backing down from the fight, and he took it public on Monday along with ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as the pair penned a Washington Post op-ed calling their approach to terror detention a “balanced” one.

“The United States has struggled to craft laws and procedures to prosecute the unprecedented kind of war that came to our shores on Sept. 11, 2001,” Levin and McCain wrote in the op-ed. “The courts, Congress and two presidential administrations have gradually, often ad hoc, developed a system that seeks to uphold our values and honors our Constitution while protecting national security.”

The original defense authorization bill, a piece of legislation that’s passed for five decades straight, had been stalled for months over the detainee provisions. But two weeks ago Levin and McCain made a deal to move forward with new language that addressed some administration concerns — but not enough to win the White House’s approval.

The biggest dispute concerns a provision saying terror suspects should be taken into military custody. It also provides a national security exception for the executive branch to move them under the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement.

The White House says that the waiver ties the hands of law enforcement officials, placing overly burdensome and bureaucratic restrictions on them and harming counterterrorism efforts.

Levin and McCain have disagreed, arguing their legislation gives the administration “broad authority to decide who is covered by this provision and how and when such a decision is made.”

The White House and Armed Services panel have also quarreled over the handling of detainees in Guantánamo Bay. The committee changed an indefinite restriction on transferring detainees out of Guantánamo to a one-year restriction, but the administration has said it doesn’t want the provision at all.

Levin and McCain are now looking to press on this week, and with a busy December ahead, Reid appears ready to move the bill through the Senate. Levin and McCain talked on the Senate floor Monday about their eagerness to move quickly through a slew of more than 100 amendments.

“We’re not going have more than this week for this bill,” Levin said.

Many of those amendments seek to alter or strip out the detainee provisions from the bill. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), an Armed Services member, has said his amendments would prevent a veto. But McCain and Levin oppose any major changes to the legislation’s detainee provisions, including Udall’s amendments.

If the defense bill passes the Senate, it would then be sent to conference committee with the House, whose version of the defense authorization legislation drew a veto threat as well.