House passes 2015 defense authorization

The House on Thursday passed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act despite a veto threat from the Obama administration over treatment of detainees.

Passed 325-98, the legislation would authorize $521.3 billion for base national defense programs. Lawmakers considered more than 100 amendments that included closing the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and cutting funds for a nuclear control deal with Russia.

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The legislation encountered controversy earlier in the week when amendments to the bill that would allow illegal immigrants to serve in the military in exchange for green cards and an additional round of base closures were not allowed the chance for debate on the House floor.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who is retiring, said the legislation would support national defense programs without curtailing operations.

"The bill provides our war fighters, veterans and their families with the care and support that they need, deserve, and have earned," McKeon said. "The legislation guards against achieving false short-term savings at the expense of vital long-term strategic capabilities."

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the legislation didn't go far enough. He filed an amendment to authorize military base closures, which the Pentagon has insisted would help save money. But lawmakers have been reluctant to allow base closures that would cost jobs in their districts.

"During general debate yesterday, a couple people commented they liked the bill for a variety of different reasons and said it made some tough choices, and I asked a couple times to name one," Smith said. "I don't believe we did make a tough choice. When you look at the issues that we face in terms of the budget, we ducked every single one of them."

The measure allows for a slight increase in troop pay at 1.8 percent, but freezes pay for general and flag officers. It would further prevent cuts to TRICARE, which provides health benefits for service members, and military housing allowances.

Another provision would prohibit transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to the U.S. and constructing terrorist detention facilities on American soil. 

Smith offered an amendment to close the detention facility by 2016, but it failed 177-247.

The White House threw its support behind Smith's amendment, as President Obama has called for closing the Guantánamo Bay prison since his first campaign for president.

"By eliminating unwarranted and burdensome restrictions relating to the transfer of Guantanamo detainees, his amendment would further our efforts to move past this chapter in U.S. history," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. 

Smith offered another amendment that would prohibit indefinite detention of terrorists captured in the U.S. or its territories, but it was rejected 191-230.

The White House further issued a veto threat against the legislation, partly due to the restrictions regarding detainees. In a statement of administration policy, the White House also said the limitations on compensation reform and retiring weapon systems constrained the Pentagon's ability to save money and streamline programs.

But Republicans said the Guantánamo Bay facility should remain open to avoid transferring terrorist suspects to the U.S.

"Guantánamo Bay is safe and the most appropriate location for detainees to be held," said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio). 

The House adopted several amendments, including a proposal from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) to block funding for the U.S. to executive a nuclear arms control agreement with Russia. Lamborn's amendment passed 233-191.

— Martin Matishak contributed.