Harkin, Grassley vote no as Senate passes defense authorization bill

Earlier this month, U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin both voted for the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. But on Friday the Iowans were among just 14 senators to oppose passage of the final conference agreement on the defense authorization bill.  

The Senate unanimously approved its version of the defense authorization bill in early December, and the conference committee report easily passed on Friday by 81 votes to 14 (roll call). The opponents included seven members of the Democratic caucus and seven Republicans.

Several people who voted no on final passage objected to language regarding U.S. citizens’ right to a trial. Some civil libertarians believed that even the original Senate language wasn’t explicit enough in protecting habeas corpus rights, and the conference report watered down that language, as Ramsey Cox reported for The Hill.

The House-passed bill affirmed that U.S. citizens have habeas corpus rights on U.S. soil, while the Senate bill said U.S. citizens could not be held under military detention indefinitely. The compromise language says nothing in last year’s NDAA or the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would prevent the constitutional rights of those captured on U.S. soil from being infringed upon, but there was still some opposition saying the language wasn’t enough.

Harkin’s press release of December 21 makes clear that this issue changed his vote on the defense authorization bill.

“As a United States Senator, I have no greater responsibility than to work to ensure our nation’s security.  Our Armed Forces must have the tools they need to keep our country safe.  That is why I support the vast majority of the provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act and why I supported the bill that passed the Senate.  Yet I oppose this conference report because I do not believe it adequately reflects our principles.  I believe we can do a better job of protecting our national security without compromising important values than what is contained in this legislation.  

“This bill fails to make clear that under no circumstance can an American citizen be detained indefinitely without trial.  Moreover, the bill would make it much more difficult to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.  To overcome terrorism, we must stay true to our highest values and insist on legal safeguards that are the very basis of our system of government and freedom.”

Grassley did not issue a press release explaining his vote against the defense authorization bill. Earlier this week, he complained that the conference committee removed language that was supposed to protect the Air National Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing based in Des Moines.

Normally when there is agreement between the two chambers on a policy issue, it is a foregone conclusion the provisions will be become law, said Grassley, R-Ia. But in this case, House-Senate negotiators rewrote the $633 billion defense authorization bill this week to eliminate the Des Moines-based F-16 warplanes, which have seen duty in the skies over both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It is a real submarine torpedoing of something that is entirely unjustified,” Grassley said. “The actions aren’t justified for something that is very justified because of the cost-effectiveness of what the F-16s in Des Moines contribute to national defense.”

Under the congressional conference committee report expected to be approved as early as today by the U.S. House, all 21 F-16 aircraft assigned to the 132nd Fighter Wing in Des Moines will be retired. It’s expected the Iowa Air National Guard wing will be converted into a unit that remotely controls unmanned aircraft, although the aircraft probably won’t be based in Des Moines.

However, the Des Moines base will remain open, and it’s believed only about 32 positions would be eliminated among about 1,000 full-time and part-time airmen’s positions with the 132nd Fighter Wing. But many airmen will need to be retrained for new military occupational specialties, and some might transfer to other air units, officials said.

For the first time that I can remember, the entire U.S. House delegation from Iowa opposed a defense authorization bill when the House passed the conference report on Thursday. Those who released statements explaining their votes sharply criticized the conference committee’s action regarding the Air National Guard unit based in Des Moines. I understand why members of Congress are particularly concerned about the local angle, but I find it a little depressing that none of the five Iowans in the U.S. House had anything to say publicly about other aspects of this legislation, such as funding for our large ongoing military presence in Afghanistan.

I also find it amusing that the various deficit hawks in Iowa’s Congressional delegation have no apparent objection to massive wasteful spending in the defense authorization bill.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a last-minute plea to Congress on Tuesday [December 18] to strip out billions in “needless” spending on unnecessary weapons programs, just as lawmakers put the final touches on the Pentagon’s budget bill for fiscal year 2013.

In both the House and Senate versions of the legislation, defense lawmakers have inserted $74 billion toward a number of weapons programs “those that have outlived their usefulness” to the department, Panetta said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

“I expressed concerns about the [legislation], which needlessly divert $74 billion over the next decade into programs, equipment and activities we don’t want or need,” the DOD chief said.

Ramsey Cox noted that President Barack Obama has promised to veto this bill: “But both the House and Senate passed the bill with a veto-proof majority, so an Obama veto would likely be easily overridden.” I doubt he will follow through on his veto threat.

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