The House voted Thursday evening to put limits on President Obama's power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens who are terrorist suspects, but rejected a proposal to eliminate the authority altogether.
In a close 214-211 vote, members approved an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that says nothing in U.S. law can deny citizens the right to a court hearing. Twenty-one Republicans voted against the amendment, and only three Democrats voted for it.
Many believe the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) gives the president the authority to indefinitely detain terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens. Goodlatte said his language is aimed at resolving the issue.
"This is an important amendment that should alleviate any of the well-founded concerns of the American people concerning the possibility of indefinite detention of United States citizens."
But the issue was not as clear to other members of the House. Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Goodlatte's language does not go far enough, as it still gives the president too much power.
"Even with this amendment, the president of the United States, the Department of Justice, will still have the ability to indefinitely detain people captured in the U.S., be they U.S. citizens or not, without the normal due process of law," Smith said.
Smith added that it would create two different standards for habeas corpus: one for U.S. citizens and one for non-citizens. He said this would violate the Constitution, which envisions habeas corpus rights for anyone in the United States.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) went further by saying he does not believe the president has the authority to detain people indefinitely, and that Goodlatte's language therefore makes the problem worse.
"The amendment implicitly authorizes the military to detain Americans on U.S. soil indefinitely by premising its protection on the mistaken assertion that the AUMF ... allows this detention," Nadler said. "No such authority exists, the AUMF does not grant this authority, and we should do nothing to suggest otherwise."
Smith, Nadler and other members argued that the House should instead adopt their language, which would make it clear that the president has no authority to indefinitely detain anyone captured on U.S. soil. They proposed an amendment that would require all related detainees to be moved to an Article III court.
"This clarifies that the AUMF does not give any president the authority to detain people without due process of law and to detain them indefinitely," Nadler said.
But Republicans opposed that idea, and said it would limit the options of the commander in chief to deal with people who threaten U.S. national security. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said it would go too far.
"Currently, there are detainees in Guantanamo who are too dangerous to release, but are not prosecutable," he said.
The House rejected the Smith-Nadler proposal in a 200-226 vote.
Members did, however, accept an amendment from Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) that would require increased reporting on detainees being held on suspicion of terrorism.
Radel's language would require the Defense Department to submit a report each year on the names of people subject to military detention, the legal justification for detention and the steps the government is taking to provide them a judicial process. It was approved in a voice vote.
The House was spending all day on amendments to the NDAA, and in late votes, it also considered proposals from:
• Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), reducing from 11 to 10 the number of required operational carriers in the U.S. Navy. Failed 106-318.
• Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), requiring the Department of Defense to keep active ICBM silos functional and staffed. Passed 235-189.
• Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), cutting $250 million from Defense Rapid Innovation Program, and moving it to fund training and military readiness. Failed 206-220.
• Scott Rigell (R-Va.), eliminating a moratorium on public-private competition for the performance of some jobs at the Department of Defense. Failed 178-248.
• Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), reaffirming the president's plan to complete the accelerated transition of combat operations out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013, and the end of security operations by 2014. Passed 305-121.
• Steven Pearce (R-N.M.), approving a weapons testing project in New Mexico involving land and air space owned by different federal agencies. Passed in voice vote.