President Obama took a break from his family vacation in Hawaii to sign several bills into law Thursday, including the recent budget deal passed by the House and Senate that sets spending levels for the next two years and replaces some of the mandatory sequester cuts with other savings.
The other major piece of legislation the president signed was the National Defense Authorization Act, which stalled in the Senate in December before lawmakers were able to pass a slimmed-down version by crafting a compromise bill between Congress’ two chambers and shutting down the opportunities for senators to offer amendments.
The law takes some steps to reform the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases, but lawmakers did not have the opportunity to vote on a proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to remove the decision to prosecute cases from the chain of command and put them into the hands of independent military prosecutors.
It does give Mr. Obama additional flexibility to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay abroad, a step toward allowing him to close the facility and make good on a long-held promise first made in his 2008 campaign. The goal has been frustrated by Congressional opposition, among other challenges.
The small bit of additional flexibility in the defense bill drew praise from the president as a “positive step” in a signing statement he released Thursday, but he also urged Congress to lift other restrictions that slow down the process of negotiating with foreign countries to transfer detainees and prevent the administration from transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., where they could be tried. These restrictions, Mr. Obama suggested in the statement, are a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
“The executive branch must have the authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorists in Federal court. Those prosecutions are a legitimate, effective, and powerful tool in our efforts to protect the Nation. Removing that tool from the executive branch does not serve our national security interests,” the statement said.
Mr. Obama added that he looks forward to working with Congress in the future to continue taking steps toward closing the prison.