House-backed defense budget sets up clash with Obama

WASHINGTON Fri May 18, 2012 4:19pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-led House of Representatives voted on Friday to authorize $642.5 billion in defense and war spending next year, defying a White House veto threat by exceeding President Barack Obama's Pentagon funding request by several billion dollars.

The House, in a 299-120 vote on its annual defense policy bill, also affirmed that the president has the power to indefinitely detain suspected terrorists arrested in the United States and transfer them to military custody.

The House's approval of the National Defense Authorization Act sets up a confrontation over defense spending and policy with the White House, which has warned of a presidential veto, and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has not completed its version of the bill.

The measure authorized a base defense budget of $554 billion, including Pentagon spending and nuclear defense activities of the Energy Department. The House authorized $88.5 billion for the Afghanistan war and other overseas operations.

Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the act imposed fiscal responsibility on the Pentagon while providing it with "the tools they need to win the war today and deter against the wars of tomorrow."

His Democratic counterpart, Representative Adam Smith, endorsed the overall direction of the bill but said he was troubled by "overly confrontational language" in sections spelling out policies related to Russia, North Korea and Iran.

The measure calls for the United States to "take all necessary measures, including military action if required, to prevent Iran from threatening the United States, its allies or Iran's neighbors with a nuclear weapon."

An amendment passed on Friday tempered the language by saying nothing in the act should be construed as authorizing a use of force against Iran.

"On North Korea, the confrontational language went so far as to include a study that suggests deploying tactical nuclear weapons to the region," Smith said. "This would be dangerous and reckless and could destabilize the entire region."

ADDS TO DEFENSE SPENDING

The House measure would add some $4 billion to the Democratic president's defense spending plan and delay or reverse many of the cuts in ships, aircraft and troop levels proposed as part of the Pentagon's new military strategy.

The authorization bill lets Congress set defense policy and authorize spending limits but it does not actually appropriate funds. The panel that controls the purse strings - the House Appropriations Committee - this week approved slightly lower spending levels for defense.

The Pentagon is under orders to cut projected spending by $487 billion over the next decade as the government's tries to bring its trillion-dollar deficit under control.

It could face an additional $500 billion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years beginning in January. The cuts were set in motion as part of last year's debt limit deal, after a congressional panel failed to specify further deficit-reduction measures.

In debate on amendments to the bill, lawmakers clashed over efforts to revoke powers granted in the wake of the September 2001 attacks that let the president order the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists detained in the United States.

The issue split the conservative Tea Party movement, with some joining an attempt to revoke the presidential powers and others seeking to retain but clarify them.

Smith said the president should not have the power to indefinitely detain someone without being required to charge them and bring them to trial. He noted that the criminal justice system had effectively dealt with more than 400 terrorists.

"This is an extraordinary amount of power to give to the president," he said. "One power that he does not need is the power to indefinitely detain or place in military custody people here in the United States."

But most lawmakers warned that Smith's proposal would force the president to treat terrorist suspects as criminals rather than enemy combatants.

"We are at a war, we are not in a police action," said Representative Allen West, a member of the Tea Party caucus. "We cannot look to guarantee to those who would seek to harm us the constitutional rights that are granted to Americans."

But Representative Justin Amash, another Tea Party favorite, said constitutional guarantees of due process were reserved for all people, not just U.S. citizens.

"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 and a trial," he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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