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Indefinite Detention? Vermont's Senators Split on Support for Defense Spending Bill 

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Vermont's U.S. senators parted ways last night over whether to support the $662 billion Pentagon spending bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that includes provisions civil libertarians fear will allow the military to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism rather than allow them a constitutional right to trial.

Citing concerns with the size of the budget bill, along with the indefinite detention provisions, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voted against the bill — one of just 13 senators to do so.

After an unsuccessful attempt to strip the bill of the indefinite detention language, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) voted yes, helping to pass the defense bill by a vote of 83-to-13 late Thursday night.

"At a time when we have tripled defense spending since 1997 and spend more today on defense than the rest of the world combined, I get concerned that my deficit-hawk friends say we’ve got to cut Social Security, Medicare, education, health care and other programs that help working families, but when it comes to defense spending the sky is the limit," said Sanders in a statement.

Although he was also concerned with the indefinite detention provisions, Leahy supported the final bill. Several Leahy-backed amendments were included in the legislation's final version, including one that makes the National Guard part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Leahy applauded what he called the many good aspects of the legislation: Empowering the National Guard within the Department of Defense; enhancing protections for military victims of sexual violence; increasing transparency by limiting unnecessary exclusions from the Freedom of Information Act; and improving mental health outreach to members of the National Guard and Reserves, among other things.

Leahy continued to express concern, however, over the indefinite detention provisions. "Under no circumstances should the United States of America have a policy of indefinite detention. I fought against Bush administration policies that left us in the situation we face now, with indefinite detention being the de facto administration policy.  And I strongly opposed President Obama’s executive order on detention when it was announced last March, because it contemplated, if not outright endorsed, indefinite detention," Leahy told his colleagues during a Senate floor speech.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, tried, without success, to remove the indefinite detention section from the bill. Last night, Leahy and several other senators introduced a standalone bill — the Due Process Guarantee Act — that would repeal the most egregious provisions in the defense bill.

"This bill will make clear that neither an authorization to use military force nor a declaration of war confer unfettered authority to the executive branch to hold Americans in indefinite detention," Leahy told his colleagues on the Senate floor.

Sanders voted against the Senate's original Defense bill earlier this year, largely because he opposed the inclusion of the indefinite detention provision. The House-Senate compromise bill retained that language, despite efforts by some House members — including Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) — to have those provisions stripped out.

“This bill contains misguided provisions that in the name of fighting terrorism essentially authorize the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens without charges," said Sanders. "While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans.”

The House voted 283-136 last night in favor of the compromise Defense bill. Welch opposed the bill.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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