Will Obama veto the defense authorization bill?

posted at 3:50 pm on December 12, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Is this really a conundrum?  Barack Obama has threatened to veto a defense budget authorization bill over the inclusion of an amendment that gives the military the prerogative in handling terror-related detainees, even if the suspects are arrested/captured in the US.  Obama wants the conference committee to strip out the amendment before it reaches his desk:

House and Senate conferees are meeting Monday evening to finalize the Defense authorization bill, congressional sources told The Hill, potentially forcing President Obama to follow through on his threat to veto the legislation.

The White House says provisions in the bill on the military detention of terror suspects would hamper law enforcement and must be changed.

But should Obama veto the bill, as he has promised to do, it’s possible Democrats could join with Republicans to override the veto and deal the White House an embarrassing defeat.

An amendment that would have stripped the detainee provisions from the bill failed in the Senate 38-60, while the overall bill passed with a resounding 93-7 vote.

What objection does Obama have to this?

After years of struggling with issues of who should investigate, detain and try suspected terrorists — civilian authorities and courts or the military and its tribunal system — Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Ranking Republicans John McCain of Arizona reached a long-sought compromise to codify the process.

However, critics complained the deal was weighted toward the military because it required any suspected al-Qaida terrorists, even those captured inside the U.S., to be held potentially indefinitely by the military. That concerned the White House and many lawmakers who think the responsibility belongs, in part, to law enforcement agencies and the federal courts and warned that Americans could possibly be detained indefinitely by the military.

Levin and McCain denied their bill would allow for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. … Senators ultimately reached an agreement to amend the bill to make clear it’s not the bill’s intent to allow for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens and others legally residing in the country.

That’s the problem Obama faces in this threat.  The amendment itself resulted from a bipartisan compromise hammered out between Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, which makes the prospect of eliminating it somewhat remote.  McCain isn’t seen as a hardliner on detention and interrogation issues, and Levin’s approval helped get 60 votes in support of the amendment for the procedural vote.

If Obama vetoes the bill, he will end up going on record as opposing a bill that got a 93-7 vote of approval from a chamber of Congress controlled by his own party.  It will be evidence that Obama is far out of the mainstream on detainee issues, a criticism that Obama has tried to downplay ever since his plans to close Gitmo imploded in an embarrassing fashion over the first year of his presidency.  It will likely result in an override — and if it doesn’t, Obama will end up carrying the blame for gridlock by shooting down a budget bill that had wide bipartisan support.  Republicans would love to use that as a response to Obama’s attacks on the House GOP as obstructionists.

In other words, the veto threat is likely just an empty gesture of impotence.  The conference committee should just ignore it, and likely will.

Update: Earlier, I wrote that a veto would delay funding, but that’s coming from the separate omnibus appropriations bill.  I’ve removed that reference.


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