WASHINGTON — The Senate voted last week to urge President Obama to speed the U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan.
Senators voted 62-33 in favor of a faster timetable to withdraw U.S. fighting forces. It was a nonbinding advisory vote but enjoyed support from both parties.
The amendment would keep Obama’s goal to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 but urged they be extracted at a faster pace by that date. It did not suggest a specific timetable.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the U.S. objectives in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda camps and track down terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks have been accomplished.
“It simply makes no sense to have nearly 70,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan when the biggest terrorist threats are elsewhere,” he said.
The vote came as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said some undetermined number of troops will need to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to prevent al-Qaeda from returning, and to train Afghan security forces.
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., voted against the amendment.
The Senate debated Afghanistan while taking up a $631 billion defense policy bill for 2013. A final vote was expected in the week ahead.
During debate, senators voted 54-41 against transferring to the U.S. mainland 166 Iraq and Afghanistan battleground prisoners still being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
“Simply stated, the American people do not want to close Guantanamo Bay, which is an isolated, military-controlled facility, to bring these crazy bastards who want to kill us all to the United States,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Most Americans believe that the people at Guantanamo Bay are not some kind of burglar or bank robber. They are bent on our destruction.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the amendment would tie U.S. hands on how to handle the prisoners. She said they could be kept securely in maximum security prisons, as “hundreds of terrorists” already are.
“I believe Guantanamo has been a blight on the image of our country across this world and it should be closed down,” she said.
Pryor and Boozman voted to keep prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
The Senate approved an amendment declaring it illegal to detain a U.S. citizen arrested in the United States without charge or trial. It was a compromise designed to head off a full fight over the constitutionality of U.S. detention policies stemming from the “war on terror.”
“I believe even with the serious national security threats we now face, America must hold fast to our most fundamental constitutional rights and liberties,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “The U.S. government should not be authorized to detain Americans indefinitely without charge and without trial.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a military lawyer, said there is a difference “between the law of war and criminal law.”
“There is a reason that when we capture somebody in a war we do not give them a trial by jury, and we do not give them a lawyer,” he said. “They are held under the law of war because we do not want to let them go back to killing us. And they are not given a lawyer because we are not trying to solve a crime; we are trying to win a war.”
Boozman voted for the amendment, while Pryor voted against it.
House passes visa bill
The House passed a bill that would make more green cards available to foreign students who want to remain in the United States after earning advanced math and science degrees.
The bill, which passed 245-139, was urged by technology industries that want to keep the brightest graduates from returning to their home countries.
The bill “promotes a smarter immigration system that helps maintain our competitive edge,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
But the measure was opposed by most Democrats. They protested it would expand opportunities for students by eliminating the “diversity immigration” program that distributes 55,000 green cards, or permanent residency visas, by lottery to people who otherwise would have small opportunities to immigrate.
“If you support this bill, then you are saying that one type of immigrant is better than the other,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Mike Ross, D-Prescott, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, voted for the bill.