By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2007
WACO, Tex., Dec. 28 -- President Bush said Friday that he will veto the defense authorization bill because of Iraq's concerns that the legislation could hinder redevelopment efforts by entangling the country's assets in court claims by victims of Saddam Hussein.
Bush said he is ready to work quickly with Congress in January to fix the bill, which also contains a 0.5 percent pay raise for U.S. troops and revisions to veteran health-care services. Another 3 percent pay raise for the military approved separately by Congress will not be affected by the veto.
Although the president objected to some details in the bill that authorizes major military programs, his aides said he does not seek to reopen those debates. But he said a provision that would permit plaintiffs' lawyers to freeze Iraqi funds would do intolerable harm to the country's reconstruction efforts and the United States' relationship with Iraq.
"Iraq must not have its crucial reconstruction funds on judicial hold while lawyers argue and courts decide such legal assertions," Bush said.
The announcement drew immediate rebukes from congressional Democrats, who criticized Bush for not raising his objections before the bill was passed. The Democrats also disagreed with Bush's interpretation of the provision and said they are exploring ways to challenge the veto.
"This bill is important to our men and women in uniform," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that the Administration failed to identify the concerns upon which this veto is based until after the bill had passed both houses on Congress and was sent to the President for signature."
Bush insisted in his statement that he will work quickly with Congress to pass a new version of the defense bill once lawmakers return in January. He urged congressional leaders to make the 0.5 pay raise retroactive to Jan. 1 in the revised bill. He also said that, although he expressed concern about the provision weeks ago, those doubts have grown stronger in recent days.
At issue is a provision of the defense bill that would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. It was championed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) as a way to give victims of state-sponsored terrorism legal recourse. Such victims would be entitled to sue countries in U.S. courts.
In a statement, Lautenberg said the measure was intended to extend redress to victims of such state-sponsored terrorist attacks as the Iran-led bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and Libya's downing of an airliner over Lockerbee, Scotland, in 1988. Lautenberg's statement did not address whether the measure also created the unintended consequences for Iraq cited by Bush.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who helped negotiate the defense bill, said he agreed with the president's assessment of the measure's negative consequences. The legislation would allow Iraqi assets to be frozen immediately, before the merits of a case are heard.
"The president is doing the right thing," Warner said. "It's in our national security interests, and it's the right thing to try to preserve what I perceive as a strengthening of the relationship between our government and the Iraqi government."
In his "memorandum of disapproval," which he will send to Congress along with the unsigned bill, Bush also said that the language could harm the United States' reputation as a safe place to invest assets. The implication is that Iraq would contemplate pulling out its billions of dollars in assets currently invested in U.S. banks rather than see them frozen and tied up in litigation.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Iraqi officials had raised exactly that possibility. Iraqi Ambassador Sameer Shaker Sumaidaie issued a statement last week saying the provision "makes the New Iraq accountable for crimes perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and would further victimize and punish the Iraqi people. This legislation offends the basic sovereignty of Iraq."
White House officials also noted that the measure gives a "propaganda victory" to critics of the United States in Iraq who are opposed to U.S. efforts toward reconstruction.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, "cannot overemphasize the potentially devastating impact this could have to our relationships in Iraq," the senior official said.
Because Congress is not in session, Bush is barred by the Constitution from issuing a traditional veto and returning it to lawmakers, according to White House officials. Instead, according to a senior official, Bush plans to execute a "pocket veto," meaning he will not sign the measure -- requiring lawmakers to write and pass an entirely new version of the bill when they return.
To block efforts by Congress to challenge the pocket veto, however, Bush is also going the traditional route, sending over to Congress his veto message and the unsigned bill.