Senate passes $662B Defense bill after deal on detainee language

The Senate passed a $662 billion Defense bill Thursday evening after a long fight over how the U.S. military detains terror suspects.

The bill passed overwhelmingly 93-7, following an agreement reached late Thursday afternoon to add compromise language on the detention of U.S. citizens and terror suspects on U.S. soil.

Now the Defense bill goes to conference committee with the House, which had its own language on detaining terror suspects that must be reconciled with the Senate version.

It is not clear whether the change will satisfy the White House, which has threatened to veto the Defense bill over the detainee provisions.

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The Obama administration expressed its opposition to the use of military detention within the United States, but also had concerns over the legislation tying the hands of federal law enforcement by mandating military custody and prosecution of al Qaeda members. The administration also opposes restrictions on transferring Guantanamo detainees.

A half-dozen senators huddled on the Senate floor Thursday to broker the compromise, an amendment that was offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). It states that the legislation did not alter existing law for the detention of U.S. citizens or anyone who was captured or arrested in the U.S.

The deal worked for both supporters and critics of military detention in the U.S. citizen in part because the two sides disagree about what current law states.

“The Supreme Court will decide who can be detained. The Senate will not,” said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who sparred all week with Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Armed Services Republicans who back the detention language.

Levin said that there was no attempt to change the law when it came to detainees, but merely to affirm that the military had the authority to prosecute al Qaeda members on U.S. soil.

“Senator McCain, Senator Graham and I have argued on this floor that there's nothing in our bill, nothing, which changes the rights of United States citizens,” Levin said. “There was no intent to do it.”

Before the agreement was reached, however, there was heated debate over what powers the military should have inside of U.S. soil and whether U.S. citizens could be detained indefinitely in military custody.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) tried to strip all of the detainee language out of the bill, but his amendment failed Tuesday in a 38-60 vote. Feinstein had two more amendments that would have specifically stated U.S. citizens could not be held indefinitely by the military, but they were both defeated 45-55, leading to the final deal.

Civil liberties groups warned that the compromise did not stop military from detaining U.S. citizens and could “turn out to be meaningless.”

“The bill is an historic threat to American citizens and others because it expands and makes permanent the authority of the president to order the military to imprison without charge or trial American citizens,” Christopher Anders, ACLU senior legislative counsel, said in a statement.

The Defense spending bill had been stalled for months over the detainee issue, but it pushed forward last month after Levin and Armed Services ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reached a compromise deal on detainees.

The administration quickly issued a veto threat over the new detainee language, however, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller all publicly stated their opposition.

Feinstein and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, also said they were opposed, putting them at odds with Levin, a fellow Democratic committee chair.

After Thursday’s agreement was reached, Feinstein said that she received assurances from Levin and McCain hat the compromise language would be kept in the bill that emerges from conference committee.