In Senate vote, signs of shift on Guantanamo Bay detainees

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Senate on Tuesday rejected an attempt to bar using funds from a defense spending bill to build or modify prisons in the United States to hold detainees from Guantanamo Bay, a move that suggested congressional Democrats may be lining up behind President Obama's vision for closing the military prison.

The Senate vote, largely along party lines, came days after the administration announced plans to bring five alleged terrorists, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to New York for trial. The GOP-backed measure was attached to a $134 billion plan that funded programs for veterans and military construction. The overall bill was passed unanimously.

The vote on the Republican proposal was in some ways symbolic. The ban would have applied only to this legislation, not to other spending bills, and the administration has not said that it intends to build or alter prisons in order to bring detainees from the military facility in Cuba to the United States for trial.

But the vote was markedly different from one in May, when the Senate voted 90 to 6 to strip funds from a bill to close the prison, with Democrats joining Republicans in saying that Obama had not produced an adequate plan for Guantanamo. On Tuesday, only two Democrats, Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, joined the GOP, along with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

"I'm not sure I like the idea of prosecuting them in the United States, but there is ample precedent here," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), noting the trials of other alleged terrorists on American soil. "And if they're are going to happen here, I don't think we should block the funding."

The House approved its version of this defense spending bill in July. It did not include language that would bar the construction or modification of U.S. prisons for detainees from Guantanamo.

Republicans, who have long said that the president's pledge to close the prison by Jan. 22 is misguided, said they will continue to look for legislative avenues to keep detainees from being brought here for trials or permanent imprisonment.

With House Democratic leaders wary of taking up the issue, Republican leaders said Tuesday that they are circulating a petition to demand a vote on a measure -- the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act -- that would require the approval of a state's governor and legislature before a prisoner from the Cuba facility could be transferred to that state.

Such a petition would need the signatures of more than three dozen Democrats in the House for a vote to be called.

In another attempt to block detainees, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) said he plans to introduce a bill that would study the safety of moving prisoners from Cuba to a facility in Thomson, Ill., after Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) said last week that they support selling a prison there to the federal government to hold Guantanamo prisoners.

"People realize that if we're going to bring these terrorists to the United States, they're going to become cells, they're going to become targets for terrorist activity," said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who was behind the Senate GOP push to bar funds from being used to build facilities to hold detainees. "And besides that, you can't try someone under our courts system that should be tried under a tribunal."

Administration officials say they expect that as many as 40 of the 215 detainees at Guantanamo will be tried in federal court or military commissions. About 90 others have been cleared for repatriation or resettlement in a third country, and about 75 more have been deemed too dangerous to release but cannot be prosecuted because of evidentiary issues and limits on the use of classified material.

Differences over the proposal to close the prison and the decision to bring the five detainees to New York have largely fallen along party lines, but New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) on Monday criticized the trial decision, saying that "having those terrorists tried so close to the attack is going to be an encumbrance on all New Yorkers."

Meanwhile, a group of prominent conservatives, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, this week praised the idea of bringing the detainees to the United States, saying it could create jobs in the place the prisoners are taken.

"The scaremongering about these issues should stop," they wrote in an open letter.

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