White House quiet on threat to veto defense authorization bill

The White House isn’t saying whether it will follow through on a threat to veto the defense authorization bill because of a provision regarding the detention of terror suspects.

White House officials declined to comment Tuesday on the conference committee report, which was released Monday evening, saying they were still reviewing the bill. The conference committee made concessions on the detainees issue in the final bill, in hope of neutralizing the veto threat.

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“We’re in the process of reviewing the changes that were made to the legislation, and to see if those changes address the concerns that we have,” press secretary Jay Carney said at Tuesday’s White House briefing.

The conference committee’s conclusion Monday was the last chance for the administration’s monthlong lobbying campaign to win changes in the bill. President Obama and numerous members of his Cabinet have pushed for changes since a deal was reached last month between Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) that sparked the veto threat.

The bill’s new language addressed concerns from FBI Director Robert Mueller with a clause that said law enforcement counterterrorism activities were not affected. But the bill still calls for the mandatory military detention of al Qaeda terror suspects and requires a waiver to move them to civilian courts, although the power to enact the waiver was shifted to the president from the Defense secretary.

Levin, who spoke with President Obama last week about the bill, said he had not received assurances the president would sign the bill with the changes. But he said Monday that he could “not imagine” a veto was coming.

“I very strongly believe this should satisfy the administration and hope it will,” Levin said. “I assured the president we were working on additional assurances — and that the concerns were not accurate — and we’d do everything we could to make sure they were allayed and met.”

Obama could face political consequences if he vetoes the bill. The defense authorization is generally considered must-pass legislation. The bill has passed for 50 years straight, and defense budget experts could not recall any previous vetoes.

If the president does veto, he faces the prospect of Congress overriding it, handing the White House an embarrassing political defeat.

It’s unclear whether the House and Senate would have enough votes for a veto override, as an amendment to strip the detainee provisions last month in the Senate failed 38-60, short of the two-thirds majority required. The overall bill passed 93-7.

Of course, the changes to the bill could be sufficient for the president to sign the legislation. 

Last month’s veto threat, which came in a Statement of Administration Policy, said the president’s advisers would recommend a veto. That language wasn’t as strong as other veto threats, like the one issued Tuesday in response to the House tax bill.

The House is expected to vote on the Pentagon policy bill Wednesday, and the Senate could take it up Thursday, likely sending it to the president’s desk before the end of the week.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who proposed the amendment to strip the detainee language from the bill, signed onto the conference report but said he still did “not support the two flawed detention provisions.”

Udall didn’t say whether he thought the president should veto the bill.

Human-rights and civil-liberties advocates called on the president to veto the legislation over concerns about U.S. citizens being detained indefinitely.

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“The latest version of the defense authorization bill does nothing to address the bill’s core problems — legislated indefinite detention without charge and the militarization of law enforcement,” Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Levin said that the bill did not change the existing laws for considering enemy combatants, pointing to a last-minute compromise amendment added by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to the Senate bill.

“We’re not defining who is an enemy combatant,” Levin said. “We’re leaving that to the courts or the executive branch.”

The Obama administration also opposed other aspects of the bill — including sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran and a one-year restriction on transferring detainees from Guantánamo — though they didn’t generate a veto threat.

Levin said that minor tweaks were made to the Iran sanctions at the administration’s request, but that “96 percent” of the amendment from Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) remained in the final bill.