The House on Wednesday approved the 2012 defense authorization bill, after a debate in which several members needed extra assurances that language in the bill does not give the administration the right to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens associated with terrorist groups.
Concern over the detainee language nearly derailed the bill after debate, as GOP leaders initially pulled the bill from the schedule of votes. One source close to the process indicated that some members wanted extra clarity about language in the bill, while another indicated that Republicans were worried about how the votes would fall out given the opposition to the language.
The detainee language in question reaffirms the authority of the administration to detain people associated with al Qaeda, and requires military detention for anyone who plots an attack against the United States. The bill clarifies that it does not create any new authority to detain U.S. citizens, ensuring their rights to a fair trial, and says explicitly that the military detention language exempts U.S. citizens.
But opponents rejected the plain language of the bill, and said some experts have argued that the bill would expand the current authorities of the administration when it comes to detentions.
"You will hear that this bill merely re-codifies existing law, but many legal scholars tell us that this goes a great deal further than what the law now allows, that it codifies claims of executive power against our liberties that the courts have never confirmed," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said.
Supporters of the bill, including many Democrats, said there was no basis for these arguments, but grew frustrated nonetheless.
"I have never seen an issue that was more distorted in terms of what people have said is in the bill versus what is actually in the bill," House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the third-ranking Republican on the committee, cited the bill as evidence.
"The two provisions related to detention in this bill, the words that have been put into the law are very clear. One says, it does not apply to U.S. citizens," he said. "The other provision says that nothing in this section can be construed to affect existing law or authorities related to the detention of U.S. citizens."
McKeon also agreed to Landry's assertion that no part of the bill suspends the habeas corpus rights of U.S. citizens, or makes it easier for this to happen during a time of war.
Earlier in the day, the White House said it would not veto the bill, and said changes made to the bill do not constrain the administration as it works to collect intelligence and process terrorism suspects. Part of the veto threat revolved around the detainee language, which the administration said would "mandate military custody for a certain class of terrorism suspects."
The administration was satisfied with changes that ensure the detainee rules do not interfere with the work of the FBI and other law enforcement counterterrorism activities.
Aside from the detainee issue, the bill was generally supported by members of both parties, a reflection of the bipartisan and bicameral nature of the legislation. The bill went through a rare, formal House-Senate conference that let members from both houses reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions.
The bill authorizes $554 billion for the base military budget and $115.5 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's a $19 billion cut from the 2011 NDAA bill, and more than $20 billion below bills that passed the House and Senate.