House-passed defense bill would expand some presidential powers, restrict others

Brushing aside objections from the White House, the House passed a $690-billion defense spending bill Thursday that would expand the president’s authority to pursue terrorists around the world while limiting the government’s options for prosecuting detainees.

The bill would fund the Pentagon and provide $119 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate has yet to pass its own version.

The White House supports some parts of the bill, but has threatened a veto over several provisions. Two days of debate and consideration of 152 amendments failed to produce any concessions to the White House objections.

One provision would prevent the government from transferring detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. to be tried in federal court. The White House called the provision “a dangerous and unprecedented challenge” to executive branch authority.


But House Republicans — and some Democrats — weren’t moved by that argument and instead added a measure that imposes further limits on the administration’s authority by requiring that all foreign nationals accused of participating in terrorist attacks be tried by military commission, not in federal court.

“That provision is far worse than any of the Bush administration detention policies,” said Ken Gude, managing director for national security at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the administration. “They never contemplated cutting off the ability to use federal courts to prosecute terrorism suspects. This is a giant step back.”

Gude said the provision “slipped in, unnoticed,” because most lawmakers were focused on another issue: a provision that grants the president greater authority to pursue suspected terrorists without first consulting Congress.

That provision builds on legislation passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that allowed then-President George W. Bush to pursue perpetrators in that case and their collaborators without first consulting Congress.


The bill that passed Thursday would no longer require that targets have a connection to Sept. 11, instead granting the president authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force during the current armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers contended that the provision would give the White House too much power and undercut Congress’ authority, and launched a failed effort to strike the language from the bill.

The two-day debate over the bill exposed growing antipathy in Congress over U.S. military activities abroad.

On one amendment that was narrowly defeated, 204 lawmakers, including 26 Republicans, voted in favor of requiring a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. A similar amendment last year received just 162 votes, only nine from Republicans.


The House also overwhelmingly passed a measure that would block the deployment of troops or private security contractors to Libya.

Observers said the antiwar sentiment showed growing frustration with the U.S. wars abroad, but noted that Congress had traditionally stopped short of fully exercising its authority over military policy.

“There will always be some interest in asserting congressional prerogatives and powers,” said Stephen Biddle, a military strategist at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “But not if, in exchange, it means they have to actually take responsibility for whether or not to wage war [or] whether to get out of a war.”