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House passes $683 billion defense bill

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $633 billion defense authorization bill Thursday that includes fresh sanctions against Iran and funds the war in Afghanistan while offering compromise language on military detention of American citizens.

In addition to covering standard national security expenses, it also provides a 1.7 percent pay raise for the military, authorizes the Pentagon to pay for abortions in cases of rape and incest and lifts a ban on same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases.

The legislation, which passed 315-107, ended an indefinite restriction on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States or other countries, instead extending the current restrictions by one year.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2013, which began in October, was hammered out by House and Senate conferees after each chamber voted to approve separate versions.

Most NDAAs pass with broad bipartisan support after conference, and this one was expected to quickly pass the Senate, clearing the way for President Barack Obama to sign it into law.

The White House last month said Obama could veto the bill out of concern for the restrictions on his handling of Guantanamo detainees and other issues, but Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin said he did not expect a veto.

The bill includes a $26 million allocation for the planned transfer of some of the U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa Prefecture to Guam. The Japanese government has offered a total of $830 million for the transfer. Part of the funding, which was frozen under the fiscal 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, was also cleared for implementation. The House called on the Defense Department to show Congress a full picture of overall expenses for the transfer project as a condition for fully lifting the embargo on the budget execution.

The bill also stipulated that Washington acknowledges Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands and said they fall under the scope of the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba praised the action by Congress, telling reporters that it represents a “certain degree of progress” in reducing the burden on Okinawa as a major host of the U.S. military in Japan while maintaining the deterrence provided by the U.S. Gemba also welcomed the bill’s reference to the Senkakus, saying it underscores Washington’s “strong commitment” to the treaty.

House and Senate conferees had to compromise on overall spending figures for the bill, settling on $527.4 billion for the base Pentagon budget $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations, including the war in Afghanistan; and $17.8 billion for national security programs in the Department of Energy and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

The bill stripped out an amendment sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Mike Lee that was designed to limit the president’s power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens as terrorism suspects. The measure passed the Senate after fierce debate but disappeared from the final version of the bill.

In a statement, Levin and ranking Republican John McCain said only that existing legislation should not be seen as denying the right to trial “to any person inside the United States who would otherwise be entitled to the availability of such writ or to such rights.”

Rights groups had expressed concern with Feinstein’s amendment because it referred specifically to U.S. nationals and legal residents, leaving open the possibility that under the rule the military might be used to detain illegal immigrants.

Smith said that the amendment prohibiting for another year the use of U.S. funds for transfer of Guantanamo inmates marked a setback for Obama’s efforts to close the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.