The U.S. Congress moved Wednesday towards final passage of legislation that freezes some aid to Pakistan, slaps harsh new sanctions on Iran, and embraces indefinite detention of suspected terrorists.
The Republican-led House of Representatives was to approve the $662 billion Defense Authorization bill, which also sets high hurdles for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the Democratic-held Senate was to quickly follow suit.
U.S. President Barack Obama had threatened to veto an earlier version of the yearly legislation, but has not weighed in since key lawmakers from both chambers worked out a compromise they hoped the White House would accept.
The legislation notably requires that al-Qaeda fighters who plot or carry out attacks on U.S. targets be held in military, not civilian, custody, subject to a presidential waiver.
The measure exempts U.S. citizens from that fate, but leaves it to the U.S. Supreme Court or future presidents to decide whether U.S. nationals who sign on with al-Qaeda or affiliated groups may be held indefinitely without trial.
Obama had warned he could reject the original proposal over the required military custody of some suspected extremists, as well as provisions he charged would short-circuit civilian trials for alleged terrorists.
“I just can’t imagine that the president would veto this bill” given the changes made in the House-Senate compromise, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, said Monday.
Veteran Senator John McCain, the top Republican on Levin’s panel, said the negotiators had met with key aides to Obama, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and top US Treasury Department officials.
“We feel that we were able to satisfy, we hope, most of their concerns,” he said.
The lawmakers strengthened Obama’s ability to waive parts of the detainee provisions and reaffirmed that the custody rules would not hamper ongoing criminal investigations by the FBI or other law enforcement organizations.
And they very slightly diluted the legislation’s tough new sanctions on Iran, which aim to cut off Tehran’s central bank from the global financial system in a bid to force the Islamic republic to freeze its suspect nuclear program.
“It does curtail Iran’s ability to buy and sell petroleum through its central bank and prevents foreign financial institutions that deal with the central bank of Iran from continuing their access to the U.S. financial system,” said McCain.
“They are going to pay a bigger and bigger price should they continue to move towards nuclear weapons,” said Levin.
The measure would freeze roughly $700 million in aid to Pakistan pending assurances that Islamabad has taken steps to thwart militants who use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
“We’ve had some shaky relations lately with Pakistan. We need them, they need us,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican.
“But one of the things that has bothered me the most in this war in Afghanistan is the loss of life and limb to IEDs.”
The measure forbids the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. soil and sharply restricts moving such prisoners to third countries – steps that critics of the facility say will make it much harder to close down.
The legislation also calls for closer military ties with Georgia, including the sale of weapons that McCain said would help the country, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, defend itself.
And it included a measure, authored by McCain and Levin, to crack down on counterfeit electronics making their way from China into the Pentagon’s supply chain, hurting the reliability of high-priced U.S. weapons programs.