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Washington Week

May 31, 2010 - 6:00pm

While Congress is enjoying a scheduled week-long recess, I thought it might be interesting to let the readers of Washington Week know about some congressional committee actions that occurred before Congress left town last Friday, May 28. These committee actions could eventually have a meaningful effect on our lives.

The Senate Armed Services Committee met last week and took action to report the annual Department of Defense authorization bill to the full Senate. This bill authorizes the thousands of defense programs within the Department and following the committee action, the full Senate will need to pass the bill and then appropriate the money to pay for the various programs contained in the bill. The committee action last week allows the Senate chamber to now debate the bill when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV decides to put the bill on the floor for full Senate debate.

During the debate in the committee, ranking member Sen. John McCain, R-AZ offered an amendment to the bill that would require President Obama to send 6,000 troops to the border with Mexico. Notwithstanding the loud opposition by the president and Democrats on the committee, this amendment passed in the committee by a vote of 15-13. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, said he was not sure if Congress could "constitutionally mandate" the president to send troops to a particular place, and made it clear the full Senate would debate this issue when they consider the bill this summer on the Senate floor.

The committee also cut the $245 million funding provided in the bill by the Administration to convert the prison in Thomson, Ill, to a full service facility that would be able to house Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Thompson, Ill is the President's choice to become the new home for the Gitmo detainees when the Administration closes the Guantanamo Bay prison.

The committee also dealt a blow to the Administration by prohibiting the Defense Department transfer of detainees from Gitmo to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia, where al-Qaida has an active presence. According to the president's task force report on Gitmo detainees, the task force recommended that there should be some discretion as to whether a detainee should be transferred to a specific country. This new prohibition is currently in the authorization bill and will most like spark debate when the full Senate considers the bill later this summer.

The Administration had some victories in the Armed Services Committee in the form of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and an across-the-board pay raise for the military. The committee was successful, along party lines, in ending the Clinton Administration policy of "don't ask, don't tell" which since 1993 has allowed gays to serve in the military as long as the military doesn't ask and the service member doesnt tell about their sexual orientation. If this provision remains untouched during the floor debate, then the 17 year old policy could ultimately fade away.

Finally, the committee agreed to the president's request for an across-the-board pay raise for the military of 1.4%.

These Administration losses in the Armed Services committee certainly don't guarantee the same loss when the full Senate debates the bill. Remember, the current Senate make-up is 57 Democrats to 41 Republicans with 2 Independent members who routinely vote with the Democrats in the Senate. As a matter of fact, when you look at the breakdown of the Senate party membership, one could logically assume that many of the losses suffered by the Administration in the committee would be reversed when the full Senate debates the issues.

However, members of the Senate are on a one-week recess and presumably many of them are back in their home states hearing from their constituents. If the senators are listening to the folks, they might just hear an echo of voices agreeing with many of the actions taken in the Armed Services Committee last week ... that is, if the senators are listening to their constituents.

Stay tuned to see how successful the Administration will be when the Senate considers the Department of Defense bill later this summer.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of

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