WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a defense bill that ducked the debate on new military action in Iraq and Syria, but did include dozens of unrelated federal land deals, including one that gives sacred Native American land to a foreign mining firm that partners with Iran.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 sets the parameters for spending some $585 billion over the next year, including nearly $64 billion in "overseas contingency operations," which will pay for continuing the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the new actions targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
What was excluded from the bill was any consideration of whether President Barack Obama has the authority to continue fighting the old wars and the new ones, based on authorizations passed in 2001 to target those behind Sept. 11 and in 2002 to topple Saddam Hussein.
A number of Democrats and Republicans wanted to vote on the president's war authority, but were denied that chance in the rule that passed, 232-191, to set the terms of the debate. The measure itself passed later in the day, 300 to 119.
"We're talking about a defense bill, but we're not allowed to have a debate or vote on any of these wars we're involved in," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during floor debate Thursday. "If we truly care about our troops, if we're truly living up to our constitutional responsibilities, we ought to have a debate and vote. We ought not duck it."
Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.), who led the debate against any amendment, blamed the Senate for the bill's patchwork nature because the Senate never passed its own version of the NDAA, instead allowing the Senate and House Armed Services Committee chairmen to put their own unified version of the bill together behind closed doors.
Yet Nugent admitted that Congress should debate war.
"We need to absolutely have a strong and long, hard debate in regards to how we authorize the use of force in the future in specific instances and the Constitution requires," Nugent said before supporting the measure that barred that debate.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a new conference that he would be happy to vote on a new authorization to use military force next year -- if President Barack Obama first proposes what should be in that authorization.
“I told him if he does that, House Republicans will be ready to work with him to get it approved. And thus far, we've seen no urgency on the part of this White House,” Boehner told reporters. “The White House needs to show some urgency because the strategy isn't reversing the terrorist momentum on the ground. I've got gave concerns that the plan he's put in place is not going to accomplish the goal of defeating and destroying [ISIS].”
The defense authorization act not only excluded any debate on authorizing war, but also included a deal to give an Australian-English mining firm 2,400 acres of federal land in Arizona that includes sites sacred to the Apache and Yavapai tribes.
The firm, Rio Tinto, owns a uranium mine in Africa in which Iran owns a 15 percent stake. A bill that backers could not get through Congress was added to the must-pass NDAA negotiations between Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who both will soon retire from the Armed Services Committee chairmanships. It gives Rio Tinto, through a subsidiary called Resolution Copper, ownership of vast acreage in the Tonto National Forest to mine copper. Many believe that copper will be shipped to China, which owns 10 percent of Rio Tinto.
As with the blocked debate on war, Democrats and Republicans were prevented from offering an amendment to strip the deal.
"It is non-germane and it will lead to destruction of sacred sites for two major tribal nations in our country," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). "And when it does that, when it destroys these sacred sites, it benefits a foreign-owned mining company with troubling ties to the government of Iran."
The land deal probably could never pass Congress on its own merits, said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who also sought the amendment with McCollum, but nevertheless voted with his party on the rule that barred it.
He noted that the measure was debated, and it failed.
"This legislation was debated on this floor as standalone legislation and then pulled because the votes were not here to pass the legislation," said Cole. "Frankly, if that bill couldn't make it across this House, I very seriously doubt it would have made it across the floor in the Senate. So we really have the rules, in a sense, I think thwarting the majority opinion inside of Congress."
Backers of the deal, such as Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), see it as an economic boon. Cole said that he was pleased that some requirements for consultation with tribes and environmental reviews were strengthened, although he did not sound convinced the requirements would have any teeth once the land becomes private property.
"Whether this is window dressing or sincere is hard to know," Cole said.
The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week and pass it, although Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has vowed to obstruct it as much as possible because of the land deals.
Sabrina Siddiqui contributed reporting.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.