WASHINGTON — The top Democrat in the Senate said Tuesday that a sweeping defense bill is on hold until lawmakers can resolve a dispute with the Obama administration over provisions that would require military custody of terrorist suspects and limit the government's authority to transfer detainees.
In a letter to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the administration must have the flexibility to combat terrorism, including the use of the criminal justice system to prosecute terrorist suspects.
"Limitations on that flexibility, or on the availability of critical counterterrorism tools, would significantly threaten our national security," Reid wrote.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.
This isn't the first time Congress has tried to limit the administration on the detainee issue. Last year's defense bill barred the transfer of detainees at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.
The omnibus spending bill that Obama and Congress approved in April also prevented the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the U.S., prohibited the construction or modification of facilities in the United States to house detainees and required the defense secretary to notify Congress before transferring a terror suspect to a foreign country.
Congressional Republicans and some Democrats want to keep the facility at Guantanamo open despite Obama's efforts, which have proven unsuccessful, to close the prison. Lawmakers also favor trying suspects in military commissions instead of federal courts.
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the $683 billion defense bill in June, but the Senate has not acted on the legislation that would authorize spending on military personnel, weapons systems and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Congress has about 11 weeks remaining in the session.
The administration opposes a provision in the bill that would require military custody of a suspect determined to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliate or anyone involved in the planning or an attack on the United States. The administration argues that such a step would hamper efforts by the FBI or other law enforcement to elicit intelligence from terror suspects.
Reid said several senators also had concerns with the provision.
"I do not intend to bring this bill to the floor until concerns regarding the bill's detainee provisions are resolved," Reid wrote.
The Democratic leader raised the prospect of a pared-back defense bill without the divisive provisions. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and the panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said they hope to work out some compromise. But both defended their work.
"The language of the bill was very carefully designed to provide, number one a waiver for the administration and, number two to have a very narrow class of people to whom this was addressed," Levin said.
McCain said he disagreed with Reid refusing to consider the legislation "because you disagree with something that the committee agreed to. By the way, I think the vote on detention policy was 25-1."
In doubt is Congress' four-decade record of completing defense bills and sending them to the president.
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