Defense Bill Shelved over Detainee Provision

An unfinished, must-pass Department of Defense spending bill was abruptly shelved Tuesday in the Senate after only a few days of debate. The defense bill likely was bumped because of White House objections to amendments on the treatment of detainees.

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Congress plans to spend nearly $1/2 trillion next year on defense. That's the plan, anyway, which requires lawmakers to approve a bill to authorize that spending. But the massive measure was shelved yesterday in the Senate. The move came after the White House objected to amendments on the treatment of detainees. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Late last week, Republican leaders moved to curb debate on the bill authorizing Department of Defense spending. Democrats protested that much more time was needed to debate the measure. But Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell dismissed those claims.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): I don't know that it's written on some tablet somewhere that we need to spend multiple, multiple weeks on a DOD authorization bill, particularly in a time of war.

WELNA: Democrats countered that precisely because this is a time of war, more than a couple of days should be spent discussing the biggest chunk of money Congress will spend next year. Their arguments appeared to have some effect. Yesterday Republican leaders failed in a test vote to limit further debate on the Defense bill. But rather than continue debating it, Majority Leader Bill Frist brought up a controversial measure that aims to shield the gun industry from lawsuits. Democratic Whip Dick Durbin was outraged.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We had a situation moving to the Department of Defense authorization bill, which is clearly our highest priority in this nation. It was just set aside, and the decision made by Senator Frist that the National Rifle Association was more important. That tells you how politics really works on Capitol Hill.

WELNA: But Democratic leader Harry Reid said the real reason the Defense bill got knocked off the Senate floor was simple: Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney warned Republican leaders President Bush would veto the bill if it arrived on his desk with some GOP-backed amendments dealing with military detainees.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Is that why this bill is being taken away from us, because the administration has said, `We don't want to--you to look at what's gone on in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and other such places'?

WELNA: Clearly the White House did not relish other amendments headed for passage in the Senate. One put base closures on hold. Another called for expanded health-care coverage for Army, Guard and Reserve families. Still another would increase the size of the Army by 80,000 troops. But what prompted the veto threat was the measure proposed by Arizona Republican John McCain, codifying interrogation techniques for detainees.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We can do a great service for the military and for the country if we adopt this simple, two-paragraph amendment that basically says that prisoners will be treated according to the Army Field manual, which, by the way, is the tradition of treatment of prisoners for many wars.

WELNA: Another Republican, Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, reminded colleagues that McCain, having spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, knows well of what he speaks.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): This is a subject about which my dear friend has knowledge that none of us possess, and I have absolute confidence that we're doing the right thing.

WELNA: Still another Republican, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, agreed. As a co-sponsor of the amendment, he said it was high time someone brought some order to the Pentagon's chaotic interrogation policies.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Our people are trained to do it one way; you're confusing the heck out of them. And what have we learned in the last two years? If you know what the rules are about interrogating anybody, come tell me, because I can't figure it out.

WELNA: The only Republican who came to the Bush administration's defense during the debate on McCain's amendment was Alabama's Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I reject the idea that this Defense Department and our Army and our military is out of control, is confused about what their powers and duties and responsibilities are. I reject that. I don't believe that's accurate.

WELNA: Had the vote yesterday to limit further debate on the Defense bill prevailed, McCain's amendment and many others critical of the Bush administration's defense policies would have been ruled non-germane, effectively killing them. But because the Defense authorization bill is essential, and because both Republicans and Democrats want to add controversial amendments to it, that bill will likely be back on the Senate floor this year.

David Welna, NPR News.

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