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House OKs defense bill; veto threatened

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Surveillance authority expiring

The government’s authority to intercept electronic communications of foreigners – both spies and terrorist targets – will expire at year’s end unless the Senate extends a law that is under challenge from a bipartisan group of senators.

In a case in which national security bumps up against privacy, more than a dozen senators say they’re concerned that conversations and emails of Americans are swept up in the monitoring. Americans, they contend, can then become targets of surveillance without the protection of a court warrant.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried Thursday to get it before the Senate, but those questioning the law blocked any action until they could get votes on their proposals to modify the bill.

The House in September approved a five-year extension of the law by a vote of 301-118.

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a $633 billion defense bill for next year despite Pentagon complaints that it spares outdated but politically popular weapons at the expense of the military’s ability to fight.

The vote was 315-107 and sent the legislation to the Senate, where leaders hoped to wrap up the measure. The White House had threatened a veto of earlier versions of the bill, and spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the threat still stands.

The far-reaching policy bill that covers the cost of ships, aircraft, weapons and military personnel would authorize $528 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget, $17 billion for defense and nuclear programs in the Energy Department and $88.5 billion for the war in Afghanistan.

The bill is $1.7 billion more than Obama requested.

House Republicans and Democrats debated the measure against the backdrop of high-stakes talks to avert the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts and the loud cry for a sweeping deal to slash the deficit.

Democrats argued that the bill runs counter to demands for fiscal discipline.

“This bill is more money than the Pentagon wants,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “We’re just throwing money at them.”

Specifically, the bill spares a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, includes upgrades for tanks and money for armored vehicles.

In a speech this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized the pressure on the Pentagon to keep weapons that it doesn’t want. “Aircraft, ships, tanks, bases, even those that have outlived their usefulness, have a natural political constituency. Readiness does not,” Panetta said.

“What’s more, readiness is too often sacrificed in favor of a larger and less effective force. I am determined to avoid that outcome,” he said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., insisted that the bill “safeguards military readiness in times of declining budgets.”

The bill responds to the new threats and upheaval around the globe while still providing billions for the decade-plus war in Afghanistan. The measure would tighten sanctions on Iran, increase security at diplomatic missions worldwide after the deadly Sept. 11 raid in Libya and presses the military on possible options to end the bloodshed in Syria.

The final measure, a product of negotiations between the House and Senate, addresses several concerns raised by the Obama administration. It eliminates restrictions on alternative fuels that the White House had complained about and jettisons limits on the administration’s ability to implement a nuclear weapons reduction treaty.

The bill does limit the president’s authority to transfer terror suspects from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for one year – a provision similar to current law.

The bill would authorize nearly $480 million for the U.S.-Israeli missile defense, including $211 million for Iron Dome, the system designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza at southern Israel.

One of the thorniest issues in negotiations was the handling of terrorist suspects. Lawmakers finally agreed on language that says “nothing in the authorization for the Use of Military Force or (the current defense bill) shall be construed to deny the availability of the writ of habeas corpus or to deny any constitutional rights” to an individual in the United States who would be entitled to such rights.

The agreement retained a Senate provision that stops the Pentagon from sending additional spies overseas until Congress has answers about the cost and how the spies would be used.

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