Senate Clears Bill Banning Guantanamo Detainees From U.S.

  • Moving enemy combatants was an Obama campaign promise in 2008
  • Pentagon has scouted alternate sites in Kansas, Colorado, S.C.

The Pentagon would be banned from transferring enemy combatants to the U.S. and the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba would have to stay open under a defense policy bill that won final passage.

The Senate cleared the legislation for President Barack Obama’s signature on a vote of 91-3.

While reiterating the administration’s “disappointment on the repeated effort by Congress” to block the closing of the Guantanamo facility, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the defense bill , S. 1356, contains a number of important provisions and the president is expected to sign it.

In addition to the explicit instructions about Guantanamo, the legislation would authorize the purchase of 12 more Boeing Co. F/A 18 Super Hornets and six more Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35B Joint Strike Fighters for the Marines than the administration requested.

It would block efforts by the Air Force to retire the A-10 Warthog -- a close-air support plane beloved by military pilots that has been a mainstay since the 1970s. Keeping those aircraft in use would benefit the congressional districts where the planes are based and the Boeing plant in Macon, Georgia, that produces new wing sets for the A-10.

Pay, Acquisition Rules

For the troops, the legislation would provide a 1.3 percent pay-raise and give some service members the option for a new 401(k)-style military retirement plan.

The bill has provisions to change the Defense Department’s acquisition systems, including allowing it to bypass typical procurement rules for more contracts and to shift decision-making authority from the secretary of defense’s office to the service chiefs.

The legislation would require the Defense Department to make some changes in the way it handles sexual-assault allegations and to develop a strategy for addressing cases of retaliation against victims who report assaults.

Obama vetoed an earlier Defense authorization bill, H.R. 1735, objecting to the provisions on Guantanamo but mainly citing that measure’s reliance on war funding to circumvent spending caps on routine operations of the Defense Department. That objection was settled in the two-year budget deal that became Public Law 114-74.

Guantanamo Bay

The Republican-led Congress has been clear about its determination to keep enemy combatants at Guantanamo, writing instructions into both authorization and spending bills.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina were angered to learn that the Pentagon had sent teams to prisons in those states to assess whether they might be suitable for the Guantanamo inmates.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas -- home of a maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth -- said he wants a Government Accountability Office investigation of whether the scouting trips violated existing law that prohibits funds being spent to transfer detainees to the U.S. Roberts also placed a hold on Obama’s nominee to be secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning -- an action that would force the administration to find 60 Senate votes just to bring the nomination to the floor.

Obama should obey the law on Guantanamo even though “it may conflict with a campaign slogan from eight or nine years ago,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Under the defense policy bill, the ban on closing Guantanamo would be lifted only if the Defense Department provides -- and Congress approves -- a plan for the disposition of detainees held at the facility.

The administration has been working on a plan detailing alternatives to the prison in Cuba. Earnest last week left the door open to the president using his executive authority to shut Guantanamo and fulfill a 2008 campaign promise, telling reporters, “I certainly wouldn’t take off the table the ability of the president to use whatever authority is available to him to move closer to accomplishing his goal.”

The administration could be preparing to argue that Congress exceeded its authority when writing the bans against closing the Guantanamo facility; two former administration officials used an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post to lay out the case that Obama has the authority to act without congressional approval.

“The restriction is plainly unconstitutional,” wrote Gregory Craig, former White House counsel, and Cliff Sloan, formerly special envoy for closing Guantanamo. “The president, in his capacity as commander in chief, has the exclusive authority to make tactical military decisions.”

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