Reid dials up the pressure in debate over terrorism detainees, defense funding

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) raised the stakes Wednesday in a fight over the defense authorization bill, threatening to keep lawmakers in town as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches.

Reid’s comments put pressure on Senate Democrats who objected to a deal that was reached in the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday dealing with the detention of terror suspects. Reid himself had blocked the bill for several months over the original detainee provisions.

The deal means the bill, which passed out of committee 26-0 on Tuesday, could have the support to pass the Senate, despite objections from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), as well as Armed Services member Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

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“We have to finish that bill now,” Reid said of the defense bill in a Wednesday floor speech. “If we have procedural obstacles on that very important legislation, it’ll mean we have to work the weekend and into next week.”

Reid has previously threatened to hold the Senate in session through the weekend or into a recess in order to get things moving in the Senate and not followed through, and it remained unclear how much would get done on the bill before Thanksgiving.

Still, the stalled legislation took a big leap forward Tuesday after Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) struck a deal on detained terror suspects.

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is unhappy with the new legislation, although the White House has yet to issue a veto threat, as it did with the first Pentagon bill.

Udall, meanwhile, has indicated he will try to amend the bill on the floor. He put forward a motion in committee Tuesday to separate the detainee language from the rest of the bill, but it was defeated on a voice vote.

“I do not believe that the consequences of the provisions have been adequately considered, and it should be noted that the Department of Defense strongly objects to their inclusion,” Udall said.

A Reid spokesman said that some concerns remain with the legislation, and they will continue to be addressed as the bill moves forward.

If it passes the Senate, the defense authorization would still have to go through conference committee with the House bill, which includes a ban on military chaplains performing same-sex marriages. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a C-SPAN interview last month that he would rather see Congress fail to pass an authorization bill than have the same-sex marriage language stripped.

The detainee dispute centered on objections from the Obama administration over the bill making it mandatory for the military to detain terror suspects and preventing terror suspects from being transferred into civilian courts.

The administration and liberals in Congress were also opposed to provisions that indefinitely kept Guantánamo detainees from being transferred.

Tuesday’s deal addressed some administration concerns, changing the indefinite Guantánamo detention to a one-year time frame and stating that the legislation did not expand the military’s existing authority to detain suspects. The bill also includes a waiver to give federal law enforcement, rather than the military, the ability to hold terror suspects.

Panetta said that wasn’t enough.

In a letter to Levin, the secretary wrote that the requirements for military detention, particularly regarding terror suspects captured in the U.S., remained too stringent. “This provision restrains the executive branch’s options to utilize, in a swift and flexible fashion, all the counterterrorism tools that are now legally available,” Panetta wrote.

Levin argued that the new language makes it clear that the Obama administration can waive the requirement to keep terror suspects in military custody and transfer military detainees to civilian courts.

Leahy and Feinstein criticized the deal in a joint statement, complaining their committees, which have jurisdiction over terrorism issues, were not consulted.

“The bill reported by the Armed Services Committee today does little to resolve our stated concerns and those of the administration about mandatory military custody, including the potential for this bill to create operational confusion and problems in the field,” the senators said. “We have said before that these proposals are unwise, and will harm our national security. That is as true today as it ever has been.”

In addition to altering the detainee language, the new bill that passed out of committee Tuesday cut an additional $21 billion from the 2012 Pentagon budget.

The initial bill trimmed $6 billion from the president’s 2012 Pentagon budget request of $553 billion, but the August debt-limit deal paved the way for additional cuts.


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