“This president, time and again, has said that he wants to do everything in his power to close Guantanamo before he leaves. The Republicans in congress continue to do everything in their power to stop it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, on Tuesday. “I think there reaches a point where Congress is just being stubborn. They are just opposing everything he suggests, and he has to make decisions in the best interests of the country, and I think closing Guantanamo is one of them.”
Durbin demurred when asked point-blank if Obama should heed the advice of ex-White House aides and use executive authority to shutter the controversial prison camp housing terrorist suspects.
But the Illinois Democrat added that Obama is “a constitutional scholar himself” and that “if the president can find a constitutional path to that conclusion, I hope he can serve our country by closing Guantanamo once and for all.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was similarly careful when asked about the closure of Guantanamo. He deflected a question about whether detainees should be brought to the United States, referring instead to Obama’s credentials as a constitutional lawyer.
But when asked if Democrats would help Obama sell his plan to Congress, Reid suggested it wouldn’t be worth the effort – and that Obama might have other avenues to shut down the prison.
“Congress has done their job. Agree or disagree, they’ve spoken on Guantanamo in the bill,” Reid said, referring to the recently-passed National Defense Authorization Act, which bans the transfer of detainees to the United States, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
“So the president will do what he has to do,” Reid continued. “He’s going to sign the bill and then he’ll determine whether or not he has any administrative authority to do anything different.”
Republicans have spent the last week sounding the alarm that Obama’s tardiness delivering a plan to Congress suggests the president is trying to make an end-run around them and close the detention facility through executive order. GOP members have decried the anticipated move as unconstitutional, illegal, and disrespectful of Congress’ rightful role in determining Guantanamo’s future – a future they’d like to see preserved for a long time.
Democrats are walking a delicate line when it comes to Guantanamo, amid questions of balancing congressional and executive authority.
Many Democrats support shuttering Guantanamo and transferring detainees to facilities in the U.S. – even when those facilities could be in their backyards. Durbin, for example, supports the idea of bringing detainees to the U.S., even though many of them might end up at a top-security prison in his home state of Illinois.
But if Democrats argue that Obama has broad executive authority over Guantanamo, they risk the same arguments coming back to bite them in other areas.
Democrats and the White House are currently locking horns over whether the administration can carry out a campaign against the Islamic State under what many Democrats consider a defunct congressional authorization. Republicans, meanwhile, have been joyously pointing to a federal appeals court decision blocking an executive order on immigration, predicting a similar action to close Guantanamo would meet the same fate.
Yet Democrats think Obama’s constitutional authority to close Guantanamo is pretty clear – and they’re sending a message to the White House that they’re ready for him to do it.
“Well, they set it up by executive action, there was no authorization of Guantanamo,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “So you know, what you can build, you can take apart too, it seems to me.”