WASHINGTON – A blueprint for defense programs approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee would write into law the handling of captured terrorist suspects, including a permanent ban on building facilities in the United States to house those currently at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We are in the middle of a war that doesn't have an end," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. It's important that the law cover the people who are captured, he said.
The panel completed work on the $683 billion spending blueprint Thursday at a closed meeting. Details of the legislation, which now goes to the Senate floor, were outlined Friday.
Levin said that the compromise on detainees would write into law a requirement that al-Qaida members and those engaged in attempted attacks against the United States must be kept in military detention. It would also put into the law books restrictions on the treatment of foreign militants that Congress in the past has mainly attached to annual defense and other spending bills.
It would establish permanent limitations on transferring Guantanamo detainees to foreign countries, to ensure that steps are taken to prevent those released from resuming terrorist activities. The Pentagon would be required to provide a military judge and a military lawyer for determining the status of detainees subject to long-term custody.
It does not address the issue of closing the prison at Guantanamo. "Because I believe Guantanamo Bay is the appropriate place to detain and try terrorists, I will continue my legislative efforts to keep the facility open for current and future terrorist detainees," said committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
The bill, which comes in at $6 billion under what President Barack Obama requested in his budget proposal and $7 billion under the defense bill passed by the House last month, also puts some spending restraints on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the largest defense acquisition program in history.
It requires the defense secretary to come up with a fixed price contract for the next production stage of the project under which the contractor absorbs 100 percent of the costs above the target cost. There is no money in the bill for an alternative engine for the fighter plane that the Pentagon says is unnecessary, but Levin said there was still room for competition in the future. The maker of the terminated second engine, General Electric/Rolls Royce, said last month it would spend its own money to build the engine.
That wasn't enough for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the committee, who said the panel "rejected my efforts to stop the out-of-control cost overruns of the F-35 program."
McCain wanted to put the entire F-35 program on probation if the current stage of production was 10 percent over cost at the end of this year and to terminate the program if the costs were still 10 percent above target at the end of next year.
Since the program began in 2001, the cost of each aircraft has gone from $69 million to $133 million.
The committee, in approving the bill unanimously, avoided some of the divisive issues that made it into the House bill. The House called for a delay in implementing the policy of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, criticized the Obama administration's military actions in Libya, and would put conditions on the carrying out of the new nuclear warhead reduction treaty with Russia called New START.
Levin said there were provisions in his bill requiring the administration to report on New START activities, but nothing that would limit its ability to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
Once the Senate passes a defense bill, lawmakers will have to reconcile differences between it and the House version.
Levin expressed frustration with the administration for not giving more guidance on how Congress should begin to achieve Obama's goal of cutting $400 billion in spending over the next 12 years from defense, security and intelligence programs.
The Senate bill reduces the White House budget proposal made last February by $6 billion, including a $1 billion reduction in spending for military construction and a $400 million cut to terminate the Medium Extended Air Defense System.
The measure meets the president's request for a 1.6 percent pay raise for members of the uniformed services, and increases by 6 percent, to $10.4 billion, funds for the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The bill includes $547 billion for the base budget of the Pentagon, $117 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $18 billion for national security programs under the Department of Energy.