House Panel Limits Obama's Authority on Nukes

WASHINGTON -- Republican lawmakers voted Wednesday to limit President Obama's authority to reduce America's nuclear arsenal and implement a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty overwhelmingly approved by the Senate last December.

Over the objections of the Defense Department and Democrats, the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee approved a series of amendments directly related to Obama's ability to make nuclear weapons reductions. By a 35-26 vote, the Republican-controlled panel approved an amendment that would prohibit money to take nuclear weapons out of operation unless the administration provides a report to Congress on how it plans to modernize the remaining weapons.

The panel also adopted an amendment that says the president may not change the target list or move weapons out of Europe until he reports to Congress.

The votes are mostly symbolic because they are unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. House Republicans, who have no constitutional authority to vote on a treaty, said they were ensuring the link between the treaty cuts and Obama's promise to modernize the remaining weapons. They also complained that the treaty did not cover tactical nuclear weapons.

The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010, would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended in 2009 with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.

START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The Senate approved the treaty on a 71-26 vote, with 13 Republicans breaking with their party leaders.

The provisions added by the House panel to the $553 billion defense spending bill for next year are unlikely to survive in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, they elicited a fierce and lengthy debate in the committee.

Democrats criticized the measure for tying the president's hands now and in the future on reducing nuclear weapons, and trying to rewrite the treaty through the defense bill.

"If we stop implementation, Russia stops implementation," said Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen.

Democrats on the panel challenged provisions of the bill that limit the administration's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries, but were unsuccessful in undoing the provision.

Consistent with recent legislation, the bill bars transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States. The legislation also would prohibit family members from visiting detainees at Guantanamo Bay by barring the Defense Department from spending any money on such visits. The provision was a pre-emptive move as the Pentagon is considering allowing family visits.

Frustrated with Obama's consultation with Congress on Libya, the committee unanimously approved a measure seeking "any official document, record, memo, correspondence or other communication of the Department of Defense ... that refers or relates to any consultation with Congress" on Libya.

Republicans and some Democrats have complained that Obama failed to consult with Congress before initiating the military operation to protect civilians from Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya. The administration and some Republican senators, including John McCain, said the U.S. had to act quickly to avoid a massacre in Benghazi.

Days after U.S. commandos killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said he would offer an amendment to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Under his measure, the number of troops would be reduced by 90 percent by the end of 2013.

Facing strong opposition in the committee, Garamendi said his amendment would send a strong message to the administration as Obama considers how many troops to withdraw in July.

A growing number of war-weary lawmakers are calling for the United States to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, citing the cost of $10 billion a month and the death of bin Laden.

Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee have promised to challenge provisions of the bill that limit the administration's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to foreign countries. Consistent with recent legislation, the bill bars transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States.

The legislation also would prohibit family members from visiting detainees at Guantanamo Bay by barring the Defense Department from spending any money on such visits. The provision was a pre-emptive move as the Pentagon is considering allowing family visits.

The panel voted to delay Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' argument that repeal of the ban known as "don't ask, don't tell" will have little impact on the armed forces.

In a series of contentious votes, the committee added provisions to the military budget for next year that strikes at the policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the 17-year-old ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.

Obama envisions cuts of $400 billion in defense over the next 12 years as the U.S. faces a fast-growing deficit. Lawmakers on the committee are resisting some of the cuts while imposing tougher scrutiny on the Pentagon's bookkeeping.