WASHINGTON – The Senate has revived a divisive debate over civil liberties and the president's powers as commander in chief, voting that Americans citizens suspected of terrorism and seized on U.S. soil may not be held indefinitely.
A coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans backed an amendment to a sweeping defense bill that said the government cannot detain a U.S. citizen or legal resident indefinitely without charge or trial even with the authorization to use military force or a declaration of war.
The 67-29 vote late Thursday was on a measure sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. The strong bipartisan approval sets up a fight with the House, which rejected efforts to bar indefinite detention when it passed its bill in May.
The $631 billion defense policy bill for next year authorizes money for weapons, ships, aircraft and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel. The total is $4 billion less than the House-passed bill, and House-Senate negotiators will have to work out the difference in the closing days of this year.
The Senate is expected to vote Friday on a new package of tough sanctions on Iran targeting the Islamic Republic's domestic industries. If approved, it would mark the third time in less than a year that Congress has hit Iran with punitive measures designed to cripple its economy and thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., introduced the package of penalties that would designate Iran's energy, port, shipping and ship-building sectors as entities of proliferation and sanction transactions with these areas. The legislation also would penalize individuals selling or supplying commodities such as graphite, aluminum and steel to Iran, all products that are crucial to Tehran's ship-building and nuclear operations.
The penalties build on the sanctions on Tehran's oil and financial industries that Menendez and Kirk shepherded through Congress in the past year.
"The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost much of its value, and Iran's oil exports have dropped to a new daily low of 860,000 barrels per day, which is over 1 million barrels of oil per day less than a year ago," Menendez said. "Through our sanctions and the combined effort of the European Union, we've forced the Iranians back to the negotiating table."
Menendez said the new penalties "will send a message to Iran that the time for confidence-building measures is over and we do not want the Iranian regime simply to believe they can tough-out the sanctions."
The legislation also would designate the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its president as human rights abusers for broadcasting forced televised confessions and show trials.
The United States and European Union have imposed tough sanctions on Iran that have weakened its economy. But Tehran has found ways to bypass the penalties, such as Turkey's use of gold to pay for Iranian natural gas imports.
The Menendez-Kirk measure would allow the president to impose sanctions in cases of the sale or transfer of precious metals, targeting efforts by Iran to circumvent the penalties.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The president has 90 days from the legislation's enactment to act. The bill does include the authority to waive the sanctions based on national security.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, the Senate voted Thursday to add to its restrictions on President Barack Obama's authority in dealing with terror suspects.
Lawmakers approved an amendment that would prevent the transfer of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to prisons in the United States. The vote was 54-41, with several Democrats vulnerable in the 2014 elections voting with Republicans.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., argued that the 166 terror suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-styled mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, should remain at the U.S. naval facility and not be transferred to any facility on American soil.
Responding to Ayotte, Feinstein said the United States not only can but has handled terrorist suspects, with 180 now languishing in super maximum prisons. Feinstein complained that the measure would erase the president's flexibility.
In fact, the administration, in threatening to veto the bill, strongly objected to a provision restricting the president's authority to transfer terror suspects from Guantanamo to foreign countries. The provision is in current law.
Last year, Congress' approach to handling terror suspects divided Republicans and Democrats, pitted the White House against lawmakers and drew fierce opposition from civil liberties groups.
Current law denies suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subjects them to the possibility they would be held indefinitely. It reaffirms the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants.
That generated a conservative backlash as well as outrage among civil liberties groups.
In arguing for her amendment, Feinstein recalled the dark days of World War II when the United States forcibly removed thousands of Japanese-Americans and placed them in permanent internment camps amid unfounded fears that they were spies and national security threats.
House Republicans indicated they would stand firm.