Senators see votes next week to send message to Saudi over Khashoggi death

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, Sept. 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators said on Thursday they expect to vote next week on efforts to make clear to Saudi Arabia there is strong concern in Washington about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey, despite President Donald Trump’s calls for continued close ties to Riyadh.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans have joined Democrats in blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death and backing legislation that could respond by, among other things, ending U.S. support for Saudi-led war effort in Yemen and suspending weapons sales to the kingdom.

A group of Republican and Democratic senators met on Thursday morning to discuss how to move ahead, saying afterward they were working to come up with a compromise that could eventually become law.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped to hold a hearing early next week on legislation that included a broad range of efforts to clamp down on Riyadh, including new sanctions and an end to military sales.

He also said he expected a vote in the Senate next week on a war powers resolution to stop U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

Last week, 14 Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate and rarely break from the president, defied Trump’s wishes and voted with Democrats in favor of moving ahead with the war powers resolution.

“We had a very good meeting,” Corker told reporters after the session, which was also attended by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Todd Young and Democrats Bob Menendez and Chris Murphy.

Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the meeting that the senators were working on a compromise.

Graham, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia who is close to Trump, introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution on Thursday intended to hold the Saudi crown prince “accountable” for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a blockade of Qatar, the jailing of dissidents and Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

CIA chief Haspel to brief Senate leaders on Khashoggi’s death

FILE PHOTO: New CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks after being sworn in during ceremonies at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, U.S. May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – CIA Director Gina Haspel will give a closed briefing to leaders of several U.S. Senate committees on Tuesday on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to two sources familiar with the planned meeting.

Some lawmakers were angry Haspel did not participate in a Senate briefing by Trump administration officials last week on Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA has assessed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that Haspel would conduct a briefing.

At last week’s briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said there was no hard evidence the crown prince was behind the killing and urged senators not to downgrade ties with Saudi Arabia over the incident.

Haspel will brief the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Appropriations committees, the source said, adding that the Senate Intelligence Committee already had been briefed by the CIA chief.

A Senate source said Senate leaders would also participate in the briefing, which is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET.

The CIA had no immediate comment.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Howard Goller and Bill Berkrot)

Kavanaugh heads toward final Senate vote for Supreme Court post

U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Brett Kavanaugh is seated before his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

By Richard Cowan and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s nominee Brett Kavanaugh took a step on Friday toward joining the Supreme Court when the U.S. Senate approved him in a preliminary vote, despite accusations of sexual misconduct against the judge.

After a bitter partisan fight that gripped the country, lawmakers backed Kavanaugh by 51 to 49 in a procedural vote that moved the Republican-controlled Senate toward a definitive decision on whether to confirm him.

The full confirmation vote could take place as early as Saturday.

Given the result of Friday’s vote, federal appeals court judge Kavanaugh looked on track to get the lifetime job on the Supreme Court. But a change of heart by some lawmakers in the final vote would mean his confirmation could still be derailed.

Confirmation would hand Trump a clear victory and tip the balance on the court to a 5-4 majority in favor of conservatives in possible legal battles ahead over contentious issues such as abortion rights, immigration, and Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the U.S. military.

The Kavanaugh fight has riveted Americans just weeks before Nov. 6 elections in which Democrats are trying to take control of Congress from the Republicans.

What was already a sharply partisan battle became an intense political drama when university professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were in high school in Maryland in 1982. Two other women also made accusations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh in the 1980s.

He denied the allegations.

Kavanaugh’s fate might still be in the hands of a few key

senators in a chamber where Republicans hold only a razor-thin majority.

One of them, Republican Susan Collins, voted in favor of advancing the process on Friday, but said she would announce later in the day whether she would support Kavanaugh in the final vote still ahead.

Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Jeff Flake voted to advance Kavanaugh, but neither has stated his position on a final vote.

Further complicating matters for the Republican leadership, Senator Steve Daines was set to be at his daughter’s wedding on Saturday and has said he will not miss the ceremony. That may require a delay in the final vote.

FLASHPOINT

Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee was broadcast live on television last Thursday and captured the attention of millions watching.

In an angry rebuttal later that day, Kavanaugh said the accusations were part of a “political hit” by Democrats.

His nomination became a flashpoint in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault. Trump mocked Ford on Tuesday during a political rally in Mississippi, further angering Democrats and women campaigning for an end to sexual violence.

Trump, himself accused by numerous women during the 2016 presidential election of sexual misconduct, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that an FBI report showed that the allegations against Kavanaugh were “totally uncorroborated.”

The FBI sent Congress documents detailing additional interviews about Kavanaugh that the agency conducted at the request of some Republican and Democratic senators.

While the documents have not been made public, Republicans said they did not back up sexual assault allegations by Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California.

Similarly, Republicans said the FBI found nobody to support assault claims by Deborah Ramirez, who was a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University in the 1980s.

Democrats called the FBI report a whitewash and said the White House placed constraints on the FBI, which did not speak to many potential witnesses.

(Reporting by Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Ginger Gibson, David Alexander, Lisa Lambert and Kevin Drawbaugh; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Supreme Court nominee steers clear of Trump criticism

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies while White House Counsel Don McGahn (right) listens during the third day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alex Wroblewski

By Lawrence Hurley and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh stressed on Thursday that he believes the judiciary has broad authority to check the power of the White House, but refused to criticize the man who selected him, President Donald Trump.

In a second day of testimony, Kavanaugh declined to comment on Trump’s criticism of the judiciary or offer praise of the president’s character.

Democrats at Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing also pressed the conservative federal appeals court judge over newly released emails highlighting his views on abortion and racial issues after a partisan fight over the public release of the documents.

The documents released on Thursday dated from Kavanaugh’s service in the White House under Republican President George W. Bush more than a decade ago. Democrats had objected to an earlier decision by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican leadership not to make the emails public.

The third day of the confirmation hearing again was repeatedly interrupted by protesters hostile to Kavanaugh. The nominee, enduring back-to-back days of lengthy questioning, remained in good humor, making no gaffes that were likely to derail his confirmation in a Senate narrowly controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, despite the efforts of Democrats opposed to him.

Some liberals have expressed concern Kavanaugh could be a rubber stamp for Trump and protect him from lawsuits and investigations.

Asked by Democratic Senator Cory Booker whether he was picked because of an expectation of loyalty to Trump, Kavanaugh responded: “My only loyalty is to the Constitution. I’m an independent judge.”

Kavanaugh refused to say whether he had “the greatest respect” for Trump, a phrase Booker said he had used when describing Bush.

JUDICIAL AUTHORITY

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said Kavanaugh’s nomination comes at a time when Trump poses a threat to America’s rule of law and is facing an ongoing special counsel investigation. Kavanaugh said his 12 years as a judge demonstrated he was unafraid “to invalidate executive power when it violates the law.”

Kavanaugh had declined on Wednesday to answer whether a president would have to respond to a court’s subpoena, saying he could be asked to rule on the matter. But under questioning by Durbin on the scope of presidential power, Kavanaugh underscored judicial authority.

“When a court order requires a president to do something or prohibits a president from doing something under the Constitution or laws of the United States, under our constitutional system, that is the final word,” Kavanaugh said.

Kavanaugh, probed again on his views on a 1974 Supreme Court ruling against President Richard Nixon requiring recordings made in the Oval Office to be given to prosecutors, said the case was correctly decided. He called it “a moment of judicial independence where I think the court came together” in a unanimous decision.

Kavanaugh declined to answer questions on how that case could be applied relating to the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

He also repeated his refusal to comment on whether he would recuse himself if a case involving the Mueller investigation or other issues relating to Trump’s conduct came before him.

If confirmed, Kavanaugh is seen as likely to tilt the top U.S. court even further to the right. That prospect worries Democrats and heartens Republicans on volatile issues including abortion, gun rights, gay rights, the death penalty, religious liberty and business regulation.

The committee considering Kavanaugh’s nomination will hear from outside witnesses on Friday before the hearing wraps up. Republicans hope the full Senate can vote on the nomination close to the time the Supreme Court’s new term starts on Oct 1.

‘SETTLED LAW’

In a 2003 email released on Thursday, Kavanaugh suggested striking a line from a draft opinion piece that had stated: “It is widely accepted by legal scholars across the board that Roe v. Wade and its progeny are the settled law of the land,” saying that the Supreme Court could overturn it.

Asked about that document, Kavanaugh said he suggested the change because he thought the draft language was overstating the thinking of legal scholars at the time. He again declined to say whether the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, Roe v. Wade, was correctly decided, although he indicated – as he did on Wednesday – that it was a decision that merited respect as “an important precedent of the Supreme Court.”

The hearing opened with Democrats complaining that various documents had not already been made public by the committee’s Republican leaders. They were released by the committee minutes later.

Booker called the process used by the committee to decide which documents to make public “a bit of sham,” a characterization rejected by the panel’s Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley. Booker said he was willing to face possible punishment under Senate rules by releasing the documents himself, although Republicans said they had already agreed to release them.

Trump picked Kavanaugh, 53, to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement in June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Amanda Becker; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Russia’s Putin, despite sanctions, still hopes for better U.S. ties

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin still hopes to pull Moscow’s ties with Washington out of a deep crisis, but nobody will go into mourning if this ambition is not reciprocated by the United States, the Kremlin said on Monday.

Moscow is bracing itself for a slew of new U.S. sanctions despite Putin meeting U.S. President Donald Trump at a summit in Helsinki in July, an encounter both sides said went well.

Initial Russian triumphalism after the summit turned sour however as anger over what some U.S. lawmakers saw as an over deferential Trump performance galvanized a new sanctions push.

The U.S. State Department has said it will impose fresh sanctions by the end of this month, while bi-partisan legislation from senators calls for other curbs to be widened.

Moscow is also bracing itself for potential U.S. measures designed to frustrate its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that the new U.S. sanctions proposals were unfriendly, illegal and would harm world trade.

“Let’s wait and see what will happen, if anything,” said Peskov, saying any Russian response would be dictated by Russia’s own national interests.

“The Russian president is hoping for the best and, despite all this, wants to pull our bilateral ties out of the deep crisis they are in. He (Putin) still has that desire. But at the same time, nobody plans to go into mourning if our approach is not reciprocated by Washington.”

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Senate faces showdown over immigration and ‘Dreamers’

Demonstrators calling for new protections for so-called "Dreamers," undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their immigrant parents, walk through a senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Susan Heavey and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration remained insistent on hardline immigration measures on Thursday as the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on various legislative proposals to protect young “Dreamer” immigrants and to tighten border security.

In a statement overnight, the Department of Homeland Security dismissed what some thought was the bill most likely to win enough bipartisan support to pass the chamber, saying it failed to meet minimum criteria set out by President Donald Trump.

The plan, crafted by a bipartisan group of senators led by moderate Republican Susan Collins, would protect from deportation 1.8 million young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children and who are known as Dreamers.

It also includes a $25 billion fund to strengthen border security and possibly even construct segments of Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico.

The immigration issue has become a matter of urgency for lawmakers after Trump in September ordered an Obama-era program that protected Dreamers to end by March 5, telling Congress it should come up with a solution by then.

The Department of Homeland Security blasted the Collins-led plan, saying it destroyed the ability of DHS officers to remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the country, and “is an egregious violation of the four compromise pillars laid out by the President’s immigration reform framework.”

Trump’s four provisions are for any bill to include funds to build the border wall, to end the visa lottery program, to impose curbs on visas for the families of legal immigrants, and to protect Dreamers.

The Republican president has backed a bill by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley that embraces Trump’s wish list but is unlikely to win support from enough Democrats in the closely-divided chamber.

A narrower third bill, by Republican John McCain and Democrat Chris Coons, has been dismissed by Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was expected to bring forward all three measures on Thursday to gauge which has enough support to move toward a vote in the Senate ahead of a Friday deadline he has imposed for the legislation.

Despite backing from several Republicans for the Collins-led plan, it was unclear if enough Democrats would get behind it to muster the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate that Republicans control 51-49.

Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine told MSNBC on Thursday he thought lawmakers were “very close” to the 60 votes needed on the Collins-led measure. Republican Senator Marco Rubio told Fox News he was unsure whether any Senate plan would move forward.

Even if one of three bills passes, it must still win over the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a larger majority and are pushing a more conservative proposal that is closer in line with Trump’s framework.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will support only legislation backed by Trump, who has carried his tough law-and-order stance toward immigrants from his 2016 campaign into his administration.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Congress expected to vote on budget to avert government shutdown

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were expected to vote on a proposed budget deal on Thursday that would avert another government shutdown but that has angered fiscal conservatives who complain it would lead to a $1 trillion deficit.

The plan to keep the government operating and to increase spending over the next two years faced resistance from conservatives in the Republican Party, who favor less spending on domestic government programs. At the same time, many liberal Democrats wanted to withhold their support as leverage to win concessions on immigration policy.

That meant the bill’s passage was not assured in the House and would need some Democratic support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has backed the agreement, said on Thursday he believed the chamber will pass the budget deal.

“I think we will,” Ryan told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This is a bipartisan bill. It’s going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support.”

Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the deal “eye-popping and eyebrow-raising.”

“We took an official position last night to say we can’t support this,” he told CNN on Thursday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

The rare bipartisan deal reached by Senate leaders on Wednesday raises spending on military and domestic programs by almost $300 billion over the next two years.

It would allow for $165 billion in extra defense spending and $131 billion more for non-military programs, including health, infrastructure, disaster relief and efforts to tackle an opioid crisis in the country.

It would stave off a government shutdown before a Thursday night deadline and extend the federal government’s debt ceiling until March 2019, putting off for more than a year the risk of a debt default by the United States.

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION

The agreement, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, disappointed conservative House Republicans and outside groups.

“It’s not like Republicans aren’t concerned about disaster relief, or Republicans aren’t concerned about funding community health centers or dealing with the opioid crisis,” U.S. Representative Warren Davidson, a Republican, said in an interview with National Public Radio.

“But when you add them all up, it adds to an awful lot of spending. … It’s not compassionate to bankrupt America.”

Liberal Democrats meanwhile opposed the deal because it does not include an agreement to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” young people brought illegally to the United States as children.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday staged an eight-hour speech on the House floor in support of immigration legislation, including reading letters from Dreamers pleading to be allowed to stay in the United States.

A number of lawmakers who supported the bill acknowledged the deal was not perfect. “It’s not pretty,” Republican U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger said on CNN.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester said he hoped House Democrats would back the measure. “We don’t want the perfect to get in the road of the good,” he told the cable network.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said many lawmakers believe the defense spending in the bill was essential. “We’re going to get it through because most people will support it,” he told Fox News.

Senate Republicans planned a procedural vote on a stand-alone bill to increase military funding for the rest of the year to demonstrate support for Trump’s promised defense build-up.

Democrats will not support it because it does not contain similar spending increases for non-military programs. But the Senate’s failure to advance the bill will not damage the budget legislation, which is due for a vote later in the day.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News the agreement provides long-term certainty in the budget and funding for Trump priorities including infrastructure and military funding.

Failure to agree on spending led to a partial three-day shutdown of government agencies last month.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

As militant threats shift, U.S. Senate revives war authorization debate

Flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.S. President Donald Trump meets with members of his cabinet at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2017.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers will grill top Trump administration officials on Monday about a new authorization for the use of military force in the campaign against Islamic State and other militant groups, Congress’ most significant step in years toward taking back control of its constitutional right to authorize war.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on the administration’s view of a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, known by the acronym AUMF.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have been arguing for years that Congress ceded too much authority over the deployment of U.S. forces to the White House after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They are also divided over how much control they should exert over the Pentagon. Repeated efforts to write and pass a new AUMF have failed.

“As we face a wide array of threats abroad, it is perhaps more important than ever that we have a sober national conversation about Congress’ constitutional role in authorizing the use of military force,” Republican Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Under the Constitution, Congress, not the president, has the right to declare war.

Concerns intensified this month after four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger and previously over President Donald Trump’s talk about North Korea and an attack on a airfield in Syria.

“What’s happening in Niger and more broadly in Africa suggests a greater urgency for an AUMF,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, a leading advocate for a new authorization, said on Thursday after a classified briefing on Niger.

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chamber’s most famous war veteran, had said he might consider issuing a subpoena because the White House had not been forthcoming with details of the Niger attack and threatened to block Trump nominees.

McCain has since said he is pleased with the information he is receiving and would let nominations go ahead.

Congress has not passed an AUMF since the 2002 measure authorizing the Iraq War. But the legal justification for most military action for the past 15 years is the older September 2001 AUMF, for the campaign against al Qaeda and affiliates.

Backers of a new AUMF say the 2001 authorization, which was not limited by time or geography, has let presidents wage war wherever they like, without spelling out any strategy for Congress, or the public. For example, Islamic State did not exist when the 2001 AUMF was passed.

Trump’s fellow Republicans control majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives but there are deep divisions over any possible new authorization within the party, as well as between Republicans and Democrats.

Many Republicans, like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, do not want a measure exerting too much control over the Pentagon and say military commanders should decide how to fight America’s enemies.

Many Democrats say they want an AUMF that limits why, where and for how long U.S. forces can be sent to fight.

 

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)

 

Republicans’ push to roll back Obamacare faces crucial test

President Donald Trump (C) gathers with Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Congressional Republicans in the Rose Garden of the White House after the House of Representatives approved the American Healthcare Act, to repeal major parts of Obamacare and replace it with the Republican healthcare plan, May 4, 2017.

By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A seven-year Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare faces a major test this week in the U.S. Senate, where lawmakers will decide whether to move forward and vote on a bill whose details and prospects are uncertain.

The Senate will decide as early as Tuesday whether to begin debating a healthcare bill. But it remained unclear over the weekend which version of the bill the senators would ultimately vote on.

President Donald Trump, after initially suggesting last week that he was fine with letting Obamacare collapse, has urged Republican senators to hash out a deal.

“Republicans have a last chance to do the right thing on Repeal & Replace after years of talking & campaigning on it,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

Republicans view former President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 health law, known as Obamacare, as a government intrusion in the healthcare market. They face pressure to make good on campaign promises to dismantle it.

But the party is divided between moderates, concerned that the Senate bill would eliminate insurance for millions of low-income Americans, and conservatives who want to see even deeper cuts to Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The House in May passed its healthcare bill. Senate Republicans have considered two versions but have been unable to reach consensus after estimates showed they could lead to as many as 22 million fewer Americans being insured. A plan to repeal Obamacare without replacing it also ran aground.

If the Senate approves a motion to begin debating a healthcare bill, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will determine which proposal has the most Republican support and move forward to a vote, Republicans said.

Republicans hold 52 of 100 Senate seats. McConnell can only afford to lose two Republican votes as Democrats are united in opposition.

Senator John Barrasso, a member of the Republican leadership, acknowledged on Sunday that there remained a lack of consensus among Republicans.

“Lots of members have different ideas on how it should be best amended to replace what is really a failing Obama healthcare plan,” Barrasso said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The Republican effort has also been complicated by the absence of Senator John McCain, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer and is in his home state of Arizona weighing treatment options.

 

(Reporting By Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Caren Bohan and Nick Zieminski)

 

U.S. Congress passes $618.7 billion annual defense bill

A U.S. Navy crewman directs an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea in a photo released by the US Navy June 3, 2016. U U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a compromise version of an annual defense policy bill on Thursday without controversial provisions such as requiring women to register for the draft or allowing contractors to make religion-based hiring decisions.

Ninety-two senators backed the $618.7 billion National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, and seven opposed it. Because it passed the House of Representatives by a similarly large margin last week, the bill now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama to veto or sign into law.

A White House spokesman told a briefing he did not yet have a position on the bill to report.

The 2016 bill, the last of Obama’s presidency, includes some Republican-backed initiatives with which he has disagreed in the past. It includes a $3.2 billion increase in military spending, when there has been no similar increase in non-defense funding.

The bill also bars closures of military bases, although top Pentagon officials say they have too much capacity, and it blocks planned reductions in active-duty troop numbers.

And it continues policies that bar transfers of prisoners to U.S. soil from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama had hoped to close. While his administration has shipped most inmates from the controversial prison, the Democrat is not expected to accomplish his goal of shuttering it before he leaves office Jan. 20.

Obama’s successor, Republican Donald Trump, wants to keep Guantanamo open, and expand it.

The NDAA passed both chambers in the Republican-led Congress with margins large enough to overcome a veto, and the compromise legislation features many provisions such as a military pay raise and an expansion of a landmark human rights bill, that are extremely popular in Congress. [L1N1E316A]

After months of negotiation, the Senate and House Armed Services committees unveiled a compromise version of the NDAA last month that left out the Russell Amendment, a “religious freedom” measure Democrats said would have let federal contractors discriminate against workers on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, overturning Obama’s executive order.

Some House Republicans said they hoped to revisit that provision after Trump takes office, when they do not have to worry about a veto threat from a Democratic White House.

The bill also excluded a provision that would have required women to register for the military draft, now that Pentagon leaders are moving to allow them into combat.

A provision recommending that the U.S. conducts yearly high-level military exchanges with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province, made it into the final bill.

China’s defense ministry said in a statement on its official microblog on Friday that it was “firmly opposed” to the move, which would “inevitably damage U.S. interests”.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner, and Christian Shepherd and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Richard Chang and Clarence Fernandez)