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House weighs defense spending bill with Guantanamo limits

Jun. 19, 2014 - 08:59PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — The House moved toward passage of a $570 billion defense spending bill that imposes new restrictions on President Obama’s handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and requires congressional approval for sustained military action in Iraq.

Republicans and some Democrats have repeatedly blocked any effort to shutter the post-Sept. 11 prison to house terror suspects, and congressional furor over Obama’s trade last month of five Taliban leaders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prompted a bipartisan effort to add new obstacles.

The administration exchanged Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban since 2009, for five Taliban officials who had been at Guantanamo for more than a decade. The five were sent to Qatar, where they are to remain for a year.

Lawmakers were outraged that Obama failed to notify Congress of the exchange within 30 days, as required by law. The bill would bar 85 percent of the funds in the account for overseas conflicts until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reassures Congress that congressional notification on Guantanamo transfers will be respected.

During debate on Thursday, the House added another limit on the president’s handling of detainees, voting 238-179 for an amendment by Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., that would bar funds for transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen.

The legislation for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would provide the funds for military operations, including actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as weapons and military personnel. The White House has objected to the legislation, complaining about the Guantanamo restrictions and attempts to spare weapons from Pentagon cost-cutters.

Wary of U.S. re-engagement in Iraq three years after combat troops left, two Democrats — Rep. John Garamendi of California and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii — won voice vote approval for an amendment requiring the president to seek congressional approval for sustained military action in Iraq.

“This miscalculation is not worth repeating,” Hanabusa said of Iraq during the debate. The vote came hours after Obama announced that he would dispatch up to 300 military advisers to help quell the growing insurgency in Iraq.

Garamendi said Obama’s efforts to boost security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad should require no congressional action, but he said unmanned air strikes amount to an act of war and need approval.

“There are many people in the House of Representatives that are deeply concerned about the slippery slope that we are apparently about to step on,” Garamendi said in an interview.

Other House Democrats directly challenged Obama’s authority as commander in chief, with lawmakers asserting that their efforts reflected a war-weary nation after more than a decade of conflict, thousands of American lives lost and billions of dollars spent.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., offered two amendments to bar funds for combat operations in Iraq and prevent money from being spent under the 2002 law authorizing military force in Iraq.

“It’s time to get out and stay out,” said Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.

Democrats blamed the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and insisted that the sectarian violence is his problem. The U.S. military had done its job. “We have trained these people up the wazoo,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey argued against the measure, warning that it would tie the president’s hands.

“We have to be realistic,” he said, “this would end the possibility of us engaging in any circumstances.”

The House was scheduled to vote late Thursday on the amendments.

Republicans sought to add another roadblock to Obama’s push to close Guantanamo.

An amendment by Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., would bar any transfers of detainees to their native country or another nation for a year. Cotton said the moratorium was necessary so Congress could investigate “the president’s lawless release of the Taliban five.”

Cotton said the current Guantanamo population of 149 is “not goat-herders. These are the worst of the worst.”

Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., countered that no one in the administration is even talking about transferring the worst enemy combatants, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack. He complained that the measure would prevent the president from transferring detainees already cleared for movement.

A vote was slated for late Thursday.

The overall spending bill would provide a 1.8 percent pay raise for military personnel, more than the 1 percent that the Obama administration proposed, and accepts the Pentagon’s plan to retire A-10 Warthog, the close air support aircraft popular in Congress.

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