Shrugging off a possible veto from President George W. Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday demanded the administration develop a plan to transfer detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The 220-208 vote came on an amendment to a bill authorizing defense programs that the Democratic-led House passed overwhelmingly. The Senate has yet to act, and then the two versions will have to be reconciled.
Earlier this week the White House warned lawmakers not to "micro-manage" the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, saying any bill that blocked the administration from detaining people it has designated as "enemy combatants" could provoke a veto.
The United States is holding hundreds of suspected militants at the prison. U.S. defense officials say 95 percent are connected to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or their associates.
Lawmakers noted that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested Congress should explore with the White House ways to close the prison, while not releasing its most dangerous detainees. Human rights groups have demanded that Guantanamo be closed and detainees charged with crimes or released.
The proposal by Rep. James Moran that cleared the House requires the administration to report on plans to place captives on trial, transfer them to other facilities, or release them.
"LACK OF INFORMATION"
"Whether you like it or not, whether you believe Guantanamo Bay is a blight on our international standing, or whether you believe these detainees should be held and tried in the United States, we should all agree the policy options before the president and Congress should not be limited by a lack of information," the Virginia Democrat said.
Pentagon officials say they plan to try about 80 of the 385 Guantanamo detainees under a military commissions structure set up by Congress last year. Those trials are scheduled to begin this summer. The Pentagon also has about 80 detainees it wants to transfer to other countries. The rest are in legal limbo.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, pledged to offer another bill soon to restore to Guantanamo detainees rights that Congress limited last year to challenge their imprisonment.
Moran's amendment was denounced by House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who said Democrats "are leading us down the road to importing dangerous terrorists into our local communities" as Guantanamo prisoners are moved.
Boehner also disparaged the bill's cuts in missile defense programs as "a giant step backwards." The legislation would cut $160 million the administration wanted to develop a missile defense interceptor site in Poland. But it also says that if a deal on the site is reached with Poland before September 30, 2008, the administration can ask again for the money.
The mammoth defense bill authorizes $504 billion for defense programs. It calls for increases of 13,000 Army and 9,000 Marine Corps active duty personnel over current authorized level.
It also allocates $142 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during fiscal 2008, which starts October 1, but for this to take effect, a partner defense appropriations bill must pass later this year.
Democrats want to wind down the Iraq war, but House leaders decided not to fight that battle on this defense programs legislation. They are negotiating with the White House over whether to approve a separate Iraq war funding bill with money for the current fiscal year.