Detainee bill sparks rare friction on House military committee

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee attacked the panel’s GOP leaders Tuesday for offering a legislative alternative to the White House’s revised terrorist detainee policy without conferring with minority members, a salvo in a rare fight on this usually non-partisan committee.

HASC Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) on Tuesday rolled out a bill that would slow or alter an executive order issued on Monday by the White House that, among other things, ordered military commission trials for terrorism suspects be re-started at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.

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On Monday, McKeon issued a statement slamming the Obama administration for “repeating the mistakes of the Bush Administration by attempting to generate detainee policy by executive fiat rather than working with Congress to create a statutory framework that would stand up to judicial scrutiny.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, questioned McKeon’s commitment to crafting a bipartisan policy.

“Yesterday House Republicans criticized the Administration for not working in a bipartisan fashion, yet today they unilaterally unveiled legislation without input from Democrats,” Smith said in a statement released late Tuesday.

“While we were informed that legislation was being drafted, our views on the substance of the proposal were not incorporated into the bill that was introduced today,” Smith said. “This legislation solely represents the views of the Republican Party.”

A senior Democratic aide told The Hill earlier on Tuesday that McKeon and Smith had “not even had a conversation about the bill.”

A House GOP source countered that Armed Services Democratic staffers have had a copy of the McKeon bill since Feb. 16.

The rift is a rare one for a committee that has for years prided itself on putting aside politics in the name of national security.

Smith told reporters last month he had a positive working relationship with McKeon, adding the duo had yet to disagree on any major policy issue. That changed Tuesday.

One provision of McKeon’s legislation would block implementation of President Obama’s revamped detainee policy by requiring the defense secretary hand lawmakers a plan that addresses “serious concerns regarding the provision of sensitive information to detainees at Guantanamo and to ensure” DoD has a “protocol in place to review detainee communications.”

Another provision would require terrorism suspects “must be held in military custody unless the Secretary of Defense certifies that a waiver is necessary in the interests of national security.”

Smith’s criticisms stretched to the content of the GOP bill, as well, calling it “seriously flawed.”

The McKeon bill would erect “legal barriers at a time when the administration needs flexibility in dealing with terrorists who threaten our national security,” Smith said. “This bill reads more like a partisan statement, rather than a serious solution designed to garner bipartisan support and address a pressing national security issue.”

-- This story was updated at 9:49 a.m. on March 9.