By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Under pressure from Republicans and concerned about the politics of relocating terrorism suspects to U.S. soil, Senate Democrats rejected President Obama's request for funding to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and vowed to withhold federal dollars until the president decides the fate of the facility's 240 detainees.
The decision represents a potentially serious setback for Obama, who as a candidate vowed to close Guantanamo and who signed an executive order beginning the process soon after he took office.
Obama had asked Congress for $80 million to close the facility, located on a U.S. military base in Cuba, by early 2010. Many Democrats see Guantanamo as an affront to the U.S. legal system and a symbol of Bush-era detainee policies, but they are increasingly wary about the next step, as yet undefined by Obama, of relocating the terrorism suspects who are detained at the site.
As recently as last week, Senate Democrats had hoped to preserve a portion of Obama's Guantanamo funding request. But their resolve crumbled in the face of a concerted Republican campaign warning of dire consequences if some detainees ended up in prisons or other facilities in the United States, a possibility that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has acknowledged.
"U.S. jails are typically for U.S. citizens," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "These are foreign terrorists, detained on the battlefield in the war on terror."
Obama will clarify and expand on his Guantanamo plans in a speech tomorrow, senior administration officials said. But his remarks will come too late to restore the funding, which he had sought as part of the emergency Iraq and Afghanistan spending bill that is moving through the Senate. The bill cleared the House last week without funding for the Guantanamo shutdown.
"We agree with Congress that before resources, that they should receive a more detailed plan," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday. He said Obama will address tomorrow whether the detainees would be transferred to U.S. prisons, sent to other countries or a combination of both.
Once those details are resolved, Gibbs added, "the president and Congress will work together on a timeline for a renewed request for whatever resources are needed." Asked whether Obama's closing date would be pushed back, he said, "There's been no change in the date from the executive order."
But prominent Democrats warned that Obama has little room to maneuver. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters yesterday that "Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president." He added, "We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."
Reid said the Senate will make sure that any final plan includes a prohibition on the transfer of detainees to U.S. prisons. "Can't put them in prison unless you release them," he said.
To forestall a showdown with Republicans, Democratic leaders unveiled an amendment to the war funding bill that "explicitly bars" using proceeds from the legislation "to transfer, release or incarcerate any of the Guantanamo detainees in the United States."
Republicans said they will continue to press for even tougher language aimed at forcing the military to keep the Guantanamo site in operation. An amendment sponsored by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) would take the additional step of ensuring that no funds in the spending bill could be used to improve U.S. detention facilities for the possible housing of Guantanamo prisoners. "If we do that, since we know there's no place else, I really believe we'll be able to keep a resource open," Inhofe said.
After Obama ordered the site closed, a Justice Department task force embarked on assessments of the 240 remaining detainees, many of them captured in Afghanistan. Thirty detainees have been determined to be transferable by the task force, but with the exception of one each accepted by Britain and France, the Justice Department has been unable to find countries willing to take them in.
Diplomatic sources said yesterday that any ban on resettling detainees in the United States would probably undermine the State Department's efforts to get European countries to accept those cleared for release. European officials have told their American counterparts that they are unwilling to assume a burden that the United States will not share.
Senate Democrats sought last week to include an initial $50 million in funding for Guantanamo's closure, but they quickly retreated in the face of the Republican outcry.
With few alternatives, some are even echoing the GOP assertion that the state-of-the-art facility should remain open. "We spent hundreds of millions of dollars building an appropriate facility with all security precautions on Guantanamo to try these cases," Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said Sunday on ABC News's "This Week." Webb added, "I do not believe they should be tried in the United States."
McConnell taunted Democrats yesterday for their rapid capitulation on Guantanamo. "I understand our friends on the other side of the aisle are -- shall I say? -- moving in our direction rapidly."
But Reid said the issue will soon be revisited, noting that the war funding bill is a short-term patch that would be in effect only until the end of the current fiscal year. "We have a lot of other pieces of legislation moving through here in the next couple of months, and we can take care of it then," Reid said. "We're only talking about four months. October 1st, that's how long this bill has to go."