House, Senate negotiators reach deal on defense policy bill

AP News
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Posted: Sep 29, 2015 6:44 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a $612 billion defense policy bill that restricts transferring terror suspects out of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and challenges the administration on the budget, drawing a veto threat from President Barack Obama.

The bill gives Obama the increase in funding he requested, but he's unhappy with the way lawmakers did it. The legislation authorizes an increase in defense spending by padding a war-fighting account with an extra $38.3 billion — money that's not subject to limits Congress has imposed on military and domestic spending.

The measure would retain and, in some cases, increase current restrictions on transferring detainees out of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It continues to ban the transfer of detainees to the United States or construction to house them on U.S. soil. It also calls on the White House to send Congress a plan on how it plans to close the facility and handle future detainees.

Moreover, it bans detainees from being transferred to Yemen, Libya, Somalia or Syria, although congressional staff members said it didn't appear the administration had any intention of transferring any to these volatile nations. Closing the prison is one of Obama's top goals, yet he has not yet sent Congress a plan on how to shut it down.

"There is still no plan on what to do and how to do it with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If the administration complains about the provisions concerning Guantanamo, then it's their fault because they never came forward with a plan."

Among other things, the massive bill:

—provides a 1.3 percent pay increase to service members

—calls for government matching funds to new 401(k)-type plans, replacing a system that doesn't leave retiring troops with anything unless they serve 20 years.

—authorizes lethal assistance to Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed rebels.

—continues support for Afghanistan's security forces and requires the president to report on the risks associated with his plan to drawdown U.S. troops there. Obama announced in March that he would slow the troop withdrawal and maintain 9,800 through the end of this year in Afghanistan where the Taliban this week captured a strategic northern city.

—increases from 4,000 to 7,000 the number of special immigrant visas for Afghans who assisted U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and now are facing threats.

—authorizes the president's request of $715 million to help Iraqi forces fight Islamic State militants. It requires the Pentagon to report on whether the Iraqi government becomes inclusive of the country's ethnic groups and states that based on that report, the president can decide to directly arm Sunnis or Kurds.

—authorizes $600 million for the beleaguered U.S.-led program to train and equip moderate elements of the Syrian opposition force, but requires the defense secretary to get congressional approval each time he wants to use money for the program.

—restores funding for the A-10 close air support plane and prohibits its retirement.

—directs the defense secretary to issue a policy to empower individual post commanders to decide whether members of the armed forces can carry government-issued or personal fire arms at military installations, reserve centers and recruiting centers. This provision follows shootings in Little Rock, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Fort Hood, Texas.

—extends the ban on torture to the CIA, a provision that pleased McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

"I'm glad the United States of America will never again to be able to do things that they did before, which was such a terrible stain on our national honor," McCain said.

McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, both acknowledged that the legislation does not solve the spending problems. But McCain insisted that is a budget fight that should not be fought on his legislation.

"I don't think we can wait till December to pass a defense authorization bill," said Thornberry. "I'm hopeful that we can pass this bill and I'm hopeful that the president will agree to it."

He said the House would vote on the bill Thursday. A vote in the Senate has not yet been scheduled.

The defense policy bill is one of the few bipartisan measures that Congress has cleared and the president has signed into law for more than a half-century. But this year's bill faces a legitimate threat of a presidential veto.

Neither Washington state Rep. Adam Smith nor Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrats on the defense committees, signed the conference report of the final bill.

"This bill will exacerbate budgetary dysfunction and hamper our military at a time when it desperately needs reliable support," Smith said. "Band-Aids and budget tricks will no longer work. We must address the root causes of the problem. We must eliminate sequestration and enact a long-term, comprehensive budget deal."