WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Congress are on a collision course over legislation that essentially would require certain terrorism suspects to be held in military custody, and a veto threat appeared to have no effect.
The White House argues that such a law would limit flexibility in handling such cases and erect walls between law enforcement agencies that authorities have been trying to dismantle since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
But on Tuesday, the Senate disregarded Obama’s veto threat and rejected an amendment to the defense bill from Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that would have shelved the detainee provisions until a study could be conducted.
“The least we can do is take our time, be diligent and hear from those who will be affected by these new significant changes in how we interrogate and prosecute terrorists,” Udall said on the Senate floor.
The Udall amendment drew support from civil liberties groups but was defeated on a rare bipartisan vote, 61-37. Sixteen Democrats and one independent joined almost all Republicans to uphold the detainee provisions. Two Republicans — Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois — along with 34 Democrats and one independent voted to strip the provisions. Two senators did not vote.
“After a decade of settled jurisprudence on detention authority, Congress must be careful not to open a whole new series of legal questions that will distract from our efforts to protect the country,” the White House wrote in a message to congressional leaders earlier this month.
The defense bill is must-pass legislation covering a wide range of Pentagon policy. It sets annual pay for the troops, funding levels for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and commits to weapons systems and other military contracts.
The Democratic chairman of the conservative-leaning Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, has led efforts to preserve the GOP-backed detainee provisions, leaving the administration at odds with key Capitol Hill allies.
More than 200 amendments await the bill, and the Senate expects to work its way through some of them this week. The detainee provisions, which have drawn the most debate, come after the Armed Services Committee reworked that section to try to address the administration’s concerns.
Supporters argued that the provisions merely put into law the government’s ability to detain terror suspects, as has been done since the 2001 terror attacks. The legislation also grants the administration greater authority to use military custody, rather than civilian law enforcement and courts.
“We are at war with al-Qaida, and people determined to be part of al-Qaida should be treated as people who are at war with us,” Levin said.
Tuesday’s vote came after former Vice President Dick Cheney, a leading architect of detainee policies under President George W. Bush, attended a weekly GOP Senate luncheon where the issues sparked a robust debate in the closed session, according to senators who attended. Cheney did not speak during the discussion.
Civil libertarians warn that the detainee provisions are political grandstanding as the presidential election year looms, and give the government far-reaching power to patrol U.S. streets and detain U.S. citizens indefinitely.
“The defense authorization bill has very dangerous provisions,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. Because two-thirds of Congress would be needed to override a veto, he noted that the 37 Senate votes for the Udall amendment “show the president could sustain a veto if it came to that.”
If the defense bill is approved, it would be merged with a House-passed version that also drew a veto threat from the White House.