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House-Senate Agreement Reached on Omnibus Spending, Defense Authorization Bills

Two major year-end pieces of legislation were readied yesterday, and in this case, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on the measures, expecting to pass them by the end of the week. First, appropriators agreed to a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill covering the rest of the fiscal year (to September 30 of next year) on domestic spending.

Most of the unrelated policy riders built into some of the spending bills by House conservatives have been removed, and the bill maintains the $1.043 trillion level of discretionary spending mandated by the debt limit deal. Some priorities, like foreign aid and environmental spending, see a slight decrease in the bill, and others, like veteran’s benefits, nuclear modernization and funding for schools with disadvantaged students, see a slight increase. Most budgets are frozen, which is a cut in real terms, and will become evident as a fiscal policy drag in the coming year.

The biggest policy rider concession concerns a restoration of tighter restrictions on remittances and travel for Cuban immigrants, a wrong-headed idea that is as counter-productive as the embargo. The most notable item in the omnibus is probably the freezing of $700 million in foreign aid to Pakistan, another escalation of that troubled relationship.

The other big bill rolled out of a conference committee yesterday was the $662 billion defense authorization bill. The Senate version of the bill drew a White House veto threat because of several detainee provisions that codify indefinite military detention for terrorist suspects. Marcy Wheeler says those provisions are little changed, but the slight changes may be enough for the President to sign. Adam Serwer adds that at least one hurdle has been cleared, on gay rights issues:

In October, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) vowed not to let the National Defense Authorization Act pass, if provisions prohibiting military chaplains from performing same-sex marriages weren’t included in the bill. But as the final version of the defense spending bill emerged Monday evening, the anti-gay amendments had been stripped.

With this agreement, the only decision left is whether the President will veto the bill over the detainee pieces, once it passes Congress. Lawmakers lobbied the White House to approve the changes, but the Administration had no comment on Monday. The changes, it should be added, still appear to allow indefinite military detention of terrorist suspects, including US citizens, subject only to a waiver from the Secretary of Defense.

The major change is an addition that says “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect the existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or any other domestic law enforcement agency with regard to a covered person.” But the mechanics of that are unclear. The bill also blocks funding for any construction of detention facilities for terrorist suspects on US soil, ensuring the continued use of the island prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This still looks inadequate from a civil liberties standpoint, but the Administration’s only real objection was that they wouldn’t have the flexibility to indefinitely detain or do whatever they wanted on detainees anyway. The changes may clear that low bar. That means the indefinite detention regime looks about ready to become law.

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David Dayen

David Dayen