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House Works Into Night on Defense Legislation

The House of Representatives is meeting in an extraordinary overnight session, as lawmakers consider important defense legislation, including the controversial issue of treatment of terrorist suspects.

With lawmakers working hard to finish major pieces of legislation before a long recess, the House reconvened just after midnight to work on the first of two defense bills.

An authorization bill setting overall defense spending policy and the major bill containing $453 billion in Pentagon spending, were delayed by a number of issues, most notably the question of language regarding the treatment of terrorist suspects.

Last week, an impasse between the Bush administration and Republican Senator John McCain was broken with an agreement providing for additional protections for U.S. Military and other personnel engaged in interrogation of detainees.

Congressman Duncan Hunter, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, explains how the language is being implemented in House legislation

"The language contained in the conference report can be both flexible enough to allow our personnel to protect America's security interests and fair enough to protect our personnel, without placing themselves in legal jeopardy when they employ the means any reasonable person would in a given interrogation," said Mr. Hunter.

However, Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, says he still has concerns.

"I am concerned about provisions of the bill that have the potential to create a chilling effect that would harm the ability of the intelligence community to gather vital information to protect our country," he said.

Earlier, congressional conferees had agreed that in addition to Senator McCain's provisions against torture, the defense appropriations bill would include language drafted by Republican and Democratic senators Lindsey Graham and Carl Levin.

This additional language would limit the ability of detainees to have access to U.S. courts to pose legal challenges to the grounds for their detention.

However, the defense bills debated by the House do not include language, sought by opposition Democrats, urging a report from the Bush administration regarding any secret detention facilities in east European countries used for interrogations of terrorist suspects.

The $453 billion defense appropriations bill the House also debated includes some $50 billion for American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democrats continued to complain bitterly about last-minute Republican attempts to attach to defense legislation a measure that would authorize oil drilling and exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge - a hot-button [controversial] issue for both the House and Senate.

This measure remained in the defense spending bill, further angering Democrats such as Ed Markey of Massachusetts. "The Republicans, waiving all rules of the House, have taken the number-one environmental issue of the decade and they have slapped it on to the defense appropriations bill," he said.

The House defense legislation is also serving as the vehicle for other spending bills congressional Republicans want to approve before lawmakers leave Washington.

This includes $29 billion for hurricane disaster relief for the American Gulf Coast, as well as money for government steps to prepare for and defend against bird flu.

The Senate did not match the overnight session of the House.

Senators will debate defense as well as a budget reduction bill this week, although controversy is expected there as well on the question of oil drilling in Alaska, which is strongly opposed by Democrats and some Republicans.