WASHINGTON — A divided House on Friday endorsed the indefinite detention without trial of terrorist suspects, even for U.S. citizens seized on American soil.
A coalition of Democrats and tea party Republicans fell short in their effort to end the controversial policy established last year and based on the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants.
The Republican-controlled House rejected an amendment by Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have barred indefinite detention and rolled back mandatory military custody. The vote was 238-182.
"The frightening thing here is that the government is claiming the power under the Afghanistan authorization for use of military force as a justification for entering American homes to grab people, indefinitely detain them and not give them a charge or trial," Amash said during hours of House debate.
Opponents of ending the policy argued that it would weaken national security and coddle terrorists.
The vote came as the House pushed to finish a $642 billion defense budget for next year. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation, as Republicans made wholesale changes in President Barack Obama's budget proposal.
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 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 bill snubs the Pentagon's budget that was based on a new military strategy shifting 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.
The detention issue has created an unusual political coalition in Congress.
Conservatives fear 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 it would be a violation of long-held constitutional rights. Also disconcerting to the GOP is the reality that the current government is led by a Democratic president.
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.
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."
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