05/18/2012 09:22 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Indefinite Detention Showdown Looms In The House


WASHINGTON -- A showdown looms in the House over whether to end the indefinite detention without trial of terrorist suspects, even U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders.

Democrats and tea party Republicans lobbied their colleagues furiously ahead of Friday's vote, arguing that indefinite detention gives the executive branch extraordinary power that violates Americans' constitutional rights. Opponents insisted that any change in the law would weaken national security and coddle terrorists.

The divisive issue was playing out as the House considered a $642 billion defense budget for next year. Final passage of the legislation was expected Friday afternoon.

The spending blueprint calls for money for aircraft, ships, weapons, the war in Afghanistan and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel, billions of dollars more than President Barack Obama proposed. House Republicans abandoned last summer's deficit-cutting plan that was worked out with Obama, embracing a budget that adds $8 billion for the military while slashing funds for some safety-net programs for the poor such as Medicaid and food stamps.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, citing a long list of objections. The bill snubs the Pentagon's budget that was based on a new military strategy that shifts the focus from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to future challenges in Asia, the Mideast and in cyberspace. The bill spares aircraft and ships slated for retirement, slows the reduction in the size of the Army and Marine Corps and calls for construction of a new missile defense site on the East Coast.

During Thursday's debate, Republicans insisted they're stronger on defense than the Democratic president.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, railed against "the secret deal the president has with the Russians to weaken our missile defense," a reference to Obama being caught on an open microphone in March telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more room to negotiate after the November election.

The White House wrote to Turner on April 13, explained what transpired with Medvedev and insisted that in pursuing cooperation with Russia, "We have been clear that we will not agree to any constraints limiting the development or deployment of United States missile defenses."

The GOP effort to make Obama's national security record an issue in the campaign has made little headway. Opinion surveys show Americans give the president high marks on defense after the killing of Osama bin Laden, repeated drone attacks against suspected terrorists and a weakened al-Qaida and an end to the Iraq war.

In a series of votes Thursday, the House overwhelmingly backed the continued war in Afghanistan. Lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have swiftly ended combat operations in Afghanistan by limiting funds only to the "safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and military contractors from Afghanistan." The vote was 303-113.

The bill calls for keeping a sizable number of U.S. combat troops in the country, saying the president should "maintain a force of at least 68,000 troops through Dec. 31, 2014, unless fewer forces can achieve United States objectives."

The United States currently has 88,000 troops there. Obama envisions a final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2014.

The detention issue has created an unusual political coalition in Congress.

Conservatives fear that it could result in unfettered power for the federal government, allowing it to detain American citizens indefinitely for even a one-time contribution to a humanitarian group that's later linked to terrorism. They argue that would be a violation of long-held constitutional rights. Also disconcerting to the GOP is the reality that the current government is led by Democrat Obama.

Several Democrats also have criticized the provision as an example of government overreach and an unnecessary obstacle to the administration's war against terrorism.

The provision in the current defense law denies suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subjects them to the possibility they would be held indefinitely. It reaffirms the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants.

When Obama signed the bill on Dec. 31, he issued a statement saying he had serious reservations about provisions on the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists. Such signing statements are common and allow presidents to raise constitutional objections to circumvent Congress' intent.

"My administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens," Obama said in the signing statement. "Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation."

In February, the Obama administration outlined new rules on when the FBI, rather than the military, could be allowed to retain custody of al-Qaida terrorism suspects who aren't U.S. citizens but are arrested by federal law enforcement officers. The new procedures spelled out seven circumstances in which the president could place a suspect in FBI, rather than military, custody, including a waiver when it could impede counterterrorism cooperation with another government or when it could interfere with efforts to secure an individual's cooperation or confession.

But that's not sufficient for some lawmakers.

Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Justin Amash, R-Mich., have offered an amendment that would bar indefinite detention without charge or trial of suspected terrorists and roll back the military custody requirement.

"The president right now has the authority to go outside and lock somebody up indefinitely," Smith said.

Opponents of the amendment have countered with a measure that reaffirms Americans' constitutional rights.