House defense bill _ at odds with Obama, Iraq, sage grouse

AP News
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Posted: Apr 30, 2015 4:08 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A nearly $612 billion defense policy bill headed to the House floor is at odds with the White House, a Shiite cleric in Iraq, anyone who wants to bar lethal aid to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed rebels — and a bird known for its strutting.

The Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee were victorious in batting down dozens of amendments during a more than 18-hour marathon session, which was gaveled to a close at 4:39 a.m. Thursday. The 60-2 vote left Chairman Mac Thornberry's version of the measure pretty much intact.

Provisions of the bill, which will be taken up by the full House next month, would make it harder for President Barack Obama to make good on a campaign promise to close the military prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It also calls for giving one-quarter of the $715 million to train and equip the Iraqi army directly to Sunni and Kurdish fighters. That provoked a warning from cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who apparently is tuned in to the finer points of the complex budget process on Capitol Hill.

"In the event of approving this bill by the U.S. Congress, we will find ourselves obliged to unfreeze the military wing and start targeting the American interests in Iraq — even abroad, which is doable," al-Sadr said in a statement on his website.

The Iraqi government has also rejected the provision.

"Any weapons supplying will be done only through the Iraqi government," it said. "The draft law proposed by the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. Congress is rejected, and it will lead to more division in the region and we urge it be stopped."

On Ukraine, the bill authorizes $200 million to help arm Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists.

Thornberry, R-Texas, said he "remains concerned that the president has not done enough to provide military training and assistance to Ukraine to allow it to better defend itself and increase the costs to Russia for engaging in such aggressive behavior against Ukraine."

On Guantanamo, the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, tried but failed to amend the authorization to remove restrictions on transferring terror suspects out of the military prison in Cuba. The measure that passed reauthorizes a ban on transferring detainees to the United States or building detention facilities in the United States to hold them.

It also rescinds the president's authority to unilaterally transfer prisoners like he did when he exchanged five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive for five years. And it reverts to a strong transfer policy established under the 2013 defense act. That stronger language says transfers may take place only when the defense secretary can certify that a third country will maintain control over a released detainee and prevent him from returning to the fight or threatening the U.S.

Even before the committee voted, the White House complained that instead of removing "burdensome restrictions," the committee added more.

Overall, the bill authorizes $515 billion in spending for national defense and another $89.2 billion for the emergency war-fighting fund for a total of $604.2 billion. Another $7.7 billion is mandatory defense spending that doesn't get authorized by Congress. That means the bill would provide the entire $611.9 billion desired by the president.

The committee is skirting automatic spending caps — or sequestration — imposed by Congress in 2011 by increasing the emergency war-fighting fund, which is not affected by the caps. Obama says the committee is using a budget "gimmick" to increase defense spending while failing to reverse sequestration.

This proposal would essentially fund the day-to-day operations of the Defense Department using an emergency fund, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

"That's not a responsible budget practice and it certainly is not consistent with what the president believes is necessary to protect the country," Earnest said.

Closer to home, the committee blocked the Air Force's plans to retire the A-10 attack jet, which provides close air support for troops.

In a provision eyed by bird watchers, the committee voted to keep blocking the Interior Department from protecting the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The Army said in a new report this week that listing the dancing grouse could hamper training operations at numerous U.S. military facilities in the West.

The panel agreed to move forward with military retirement reforms to allow servicemen and -women to enroll in a thrift savings plan, like a 401(k), which would include some matching contributions from the government. That would allow troops to receive at least some retirement pay even if they don't stay in the military for 20 years.