House backs tribunals only for terror suspects

The bill limits President Barack Obama's authority handling detainees

Published May 26, 2011 7:41PM (EDT)

The Republican-controlled House has voted to require that all foreign terrorist suspects be tried in military tribunals, a limitation on President Barack Obama's authority in handling detainees.

On a vote of 246-173, the House on Thursday backed the amendment to the defense bill by GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida.

The overall legislation already prohibits funds to the administration to transfer suspects from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the United States for trial in federal courts.

The provisions of the bill have drawn a threat of a presidential veto. The White House argues that it is a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to executive branch authority.

The House aimed to pass the bill on Thursday but first had to vote on nearly a dozen amendments.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

House Republicans are insisting terrorist suspects should remain at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with no chance to be prosecuted in the United States, a policy that Democrats argue limits President Barack Obama's authority in time of war.

The dispute over the fate of 170 detainees at the U.S. naval installation elicited the fiercest debate between Republicans and Democrats as the House pushed to finish a broad, $690 billion defense blueprint. The bill would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines, increase health care fees slightly for working-age military retirees and meet the Pentagon's request for $119 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republican leaders hope to complete work on the bill Thursday.

Drawing the threat of a presidential veto, the bill would limit Obama's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to facilities in the United States, even for trial. It also would make it difficult for the administration to move detainees to foreign countries.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said late Wednesday that it was unnecessary to bring detainees to the United States to bring them to justice.

"Guantanamo detainees should be prosecuted in the military commission system," McKeon said. "We currently have multimillion-dollar facilities to try detainees for war crimes at Guantanamo that are sitting empty."

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, said the United States had tried and convicted more than 400 international terrorists in federal courts. He offered an amendment that would allow for prosecution of terrorist suspects in the U.S.

"There's no question we can do this. No question that we can do it safely," said Smith, who argued that Congress should not pre-empt the Obama administration's ability "to determine where and when to prosecute detainees."

The detainee policy, the president's authority to use military force and the war in Afghanistan top the agenda for Thursday's debate and House votes.

Several House Republicans and Democrats said now that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is dead, it's time to end the war in Afghanistan and bring U.S. troops home.

Obama will begin drawing down some of the 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in July, with all combat forces due out by 2014. But that timetable is unacceptable to a growing number of war-weary lawmakers who argue that the death of the al-Qaida leader is an opportunity for the United States to recalibrate its strategy.

"The successful mission that located and killed Osama bin Laden has raised many questions about the effectiveness of America's strategy to combat terrorism through a now 10-year-old nation-building effort in a deeply corrupt Afghanistan, especially in light of the serious fiscal challenges we face at home," Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., wrote in a letter to colleagues Wednesday.

They said it would be more effective to use "a targeted, worldwide counterterrorism strategy similar to the intelligence and special operations mission that located and killed bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this month."

Chaffetz and Welch backed an amendment to the defense bill for withdrawing ground troops from Afghanistan. A group of eight Republicans and Democrats were pushing another measure to accelerate the transition from U.S. to Afghan control of operations.

While the amendments were unlikely to pass, the votes were certain to provide a measure of the congressional opposition to the war -- numbers that won't go unnoticed at the Pentagon and White House.

The administration opposes language in the bill revising the authorization to use military force established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Republican proponents say the provision mirrors what the Obama administration has spelled out as its justification for prosecuting various terrorist cases. Critics say it would give the president unlimited authority not only to detain terror suspects and prosecute them in military tribunals, but also to go to war.

By voice vote Wednesday, the House adopted an amendment that would extend whistleblower protection to members of the military who speak up about "ideologically based threats" by fellow service members that they believe could undermine U.S. security.

Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, the sponsor of the measure, cited the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, and the accused shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. A Pentagon review found Hasan's supervisors expressed concerns about his behavior but failed to heed their own warnings.

Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the November 2009 shooting spree on the Texas Army post.

The House also voted to stop a White House effort to require anyone seeking government contracts to disclose political contributions. Obama's disclosure order, drafted in April, has not yet been issued, but reports about the order have upset Republicans and some Democrats.

"Government agencies should award contracts based on merit and value to taxpayers -- not politics," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., sponsor of the amendment. The measure passed on a vote of 261-163.

By Donna Cassata

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