House passes $690 billion defense bill

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 26 2011 1:29 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a $690 billion defense bill that limits President Barack Obama's authority on reducing nuclear weapons and deciding the fate of terrorist suspects.

On a 322-96 vote, the House approved the broad defense blueprint that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines and increase health care fees slightly for working-age military retirees. The bill meets the Pentagon's request for $119 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Final passage came shortly after the House narrowly rejected a measure requiring an accelerated timetable and exit strategy for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan nearly 10 years after the conflict began.

Obama will begin drawing down some of the 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in July, with all combat forces due out by 2014. Proponents of the measure, which came up short on a 215-204 vote, said it sends the strongest signal yet to Obama that the initial troop reduction must be more than a token cut.

"It's more than people are weary," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., sponsor of the amendment, said shortly after the vote. "They're frustrated and not quite sure what we're doing there. We got (Osama) bin Laden."

In another sign of exasperation with war, the House overwhelmingly backed a measure to the bill barring any taxpayer dollars for U.S. ground forces or private security contractors in Libya with the exception of those involved in rescue missions of U.S. service members. The vote was 416-5.

Lawmakers have complained that Obama violated the 1972 War Powers Resolution, failing to seek congressional authorization for the U.S. military operation in Libya.

Obama recently said the U.S. involvement is limited in the NATO-led operation. He also has said he would not send ground forces to Libya.

The House bill must be reconciled with a Senate version. The Senate Armed Services Committee will begin crafting its bill the week of June 13.

Drawing the threat of a presidential veto, the House bill would limit Obama's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to installations in the United States, even for trial. It also would make it difficult for the administration to move detainees to foreign countries.

The House added another provision on Thursday, voting 246-173 to require that all foreign terrorist suspects be tried in military tribunals.

The dispute over the fate of 170 detainees at the U.S. naval installation elicited the fiercest debate between Republicans and Democrats.

The administration also opposes language in the bill revising the authorization to use military force established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Republican proponents say the provision mirrors what the Obama administration has spelled out as its justification for prosecuting various terrorist cases. Critics say it would give the president unlimited authority not only to detain terror suspects and prosecute them in military tribunals, but also to go to war.

The bill includes a provision that would prohibit money to the administration for removing nuclear weapons from operation unless it reports to Congress on how it plans to modernize the remaining arsenal. The bill also says the president may not change the target list or move weapons out of Europe until he reports to Congress.

Last December, the Senate ratified the New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010. The pact would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also established a system for weapons inspections.

START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

In threatening a veto, the administration said it objected to the bill's onerous conditions on its ability to implement the treaty. The White House also said the legislation "raises constitutional concerns as it appears to encroach on the president's authority as commander in chief to set nuclear employment policy — a right exercised by every president in the nuclear age from both parties."

The bill also would delay the new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

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