WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Tuesday rejected an attempt to derail controversial changes in the way terrorism suspects are handled, but continued debate on whether to allow Americans to be held indefinitely without trial.
The Senate is considering legislation that would generally give preference to military detention over the criminal court system for terrorism suspects, and allow indefinite military detention for suspects who are linked with al Qaeda or associated groups.
Critics are worried that the provisions would also apply to U.S. citizens arrested in the United States, eroding their constitutional rights to due process of law.
The debate is part of a long-running struggle between President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and some lawmakers over whether terrorism suspects should be prosecuted as "enemy combatants" before military commissions, or as criminal suspects in federal courts.
The White House has threatened to veto the entire bill, which authorizes defense programs, over the detainee proposals. U.S. officials including FBI director Robert Mueller say these provisions do not provide law enforcement enough flexibility.
But an attempt by Democratic Senator Mark Udall to strip the controversial provisions failed on a 37-61 vote on Tuesday.
Another Democrat, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, immediately proposed two related amendments that she said would make it clear that the new provisions, if they pass, would not apply to Americans.
Her first amendment would limit mandatory military custody to suspected terrorists captured outside the United States. The second would prohibit U.S. citizens from being held in indefinite detention without trial.
"We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge, prosecution and conviction," Feinstein said. It was unclear when either of her amendments would get a vote. The Senate Democratic leadership wants to finish work on the bill this week, but many other amendments are pending as well.
The Obama administration has sought to prosecute terrorism suspects in both traditional criminal courts and military courts. But Republicans and some Democrats have urged that they use only military courts, and in recent years Congress repeatedly has voted for limits on transfers of detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican defender of the detainee proposals, said on Tuesday that a waiver in the bill would let U.S. officials suspend the mandatory military custody requirement if it impedes an investigation.
But he defended the provisions' application to Americans suspected of joining al Qaeda.
"If you're an American citizen and you betray your country, you're going to be held in military custody and you're going to be questioned about what you know. You're not going to be given a lawyer if our national security interests dictate that you not be given a lawyer, and go into the criminal justice system because we're not fighting a crime. We're fighting a war," Graham said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham)