Lawmakers of the two bodies of Congress began talks to negotiate differences between their respective legislations for a major defense authorization bill over the July 4th recess, said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican. Mr. McCain and his House counterpart, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, have both said there aren’t a lot of differences left between the two chambers’ bills.
But the differences could still hold up a conference process negotiators hope will only last a few weeks, analysts say.
One is over the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The House bill would implement more restrictive transfer policies to prevent President Obama from closing the prison, while the Senate bill offers the president a path to fulfill a promise made his first day in office to close the Guantanamo facility if the administration can present a plan for closure that Congress approves.
Mr. McCain, a longtime supporter of closing the prison, said getting the plan from the administration before negotiations on the defense policy bill wrap-up will give him better ammunition to fight for the Senate language with House negotiators and even other Senate Republicans who don’t want the prison closed.
“I would like to have it, because it’s not in the House bill and they’re adamant, they have more stringent provisions in the House bill,” he said. “The fact is [the White House] told me they would. They came to my office and said they’d give me the plan before, so I’d like them to keep their word.”
Mr. Obama, on a visit to the Pentagon Monday, said he expected a bill to be signed despite his reservations about the current draft.
Noting that the government needs to invest in education and non-military research to maintain a top-tier fighting force, Mr. Obama neverthless promised that — despite his own veto threat — troops would not miss a paycheck.
“Our men and women are going to get paid,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the Pentagon. “You’ll note I’ve now been president for 6½ years, and we’ve had some wrangling with Congress in the past. Our service members haven’t missed a paycheck.”
Any plan to close the terrorist detainee site would need to include moving detainees to a secure prison run by the military, where detainees are not eligible for releases or afforded the rights of citizenship if moved to the U.S., Mr. McCain said. A plan like that, together with the exorbitant costs of holding a detainee at Guantanamo, would give him “a strong argument” to other lawmakers, he said.
But Justin Johnson, a senior policy analyst for defense budgets at the Heritage Foundation, said a White House plan may not be that big of a help to Mr. McCain, since many Republicans are wary of the administration’s word since the president released five detainees in exchange for prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl without notifying Congress.
“The two sides are both pretty entrenched,” he said. “How they work that out, I am not sure.”
Another area of difference is acquisition reform. Mr. Thornberry’s bill makes changes that would increase accountability in the acquisition process among project leaders, while Mr. McCain’s proposal would tap the service chiefs to play a more active role in purchases.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the biggest issue he’d like to see solved in conference negotiations is how the bill is funded. The president has threatened to veto the bill over lawmakers adding $40 billion to an overseas contingency operations war chest to fully fund the military without repealing sequestration.
If that issue is resolved, “I think the rest of the issues are negotiable and manageable,” Mr. Reed said.
The president, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and some Democrats have said they don’t support giving additional funding to the military while domestic programs continue to suffer under budget caps. The military has also said it would prefer to have the extra money in the base budget to make year-to-year budgeting easier.
In a speech at the Atlantic Council late last month, Mr. Thornberry said a potential veto threat would only be to provoke political confrontation.
“To threaten to veto that really makes no sense. It is just political hysterics in order to provoke confrontation. That would be the only reason to do that.” Mr. Thornberry said at the event, as first reported by Sea Power, an official publication of the Navy League of the United States.
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