Senate Democrats have decided to pull $80 million from the $91 billion war spending request -- money President Obama had requested to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by Jan. 22, 2010.
By Trish Turner
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Senate Democrats threw cold water on President Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center Tuesday, pulling money for the closure from a $91 billion war spending request and publicly opposing the transfer of any detainees to U.S. soil.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats not only oppose the release of detainees into the United States but also oppose the transfer of detainees to U.S. prisons.
"We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States," he said, adding: "Part of what we don't want is for them to be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around in the United States."
On top of that, Senate Democrats decided to pull $80 million from the war spending request -- money Obama had requested to close the detention facility by Jan. 22, 2010.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley later walked back part of Reid's statement.
"He's not going to do anything until we get a plan from the president." Manley said. He said "the leader is leaving the door open to detainees being transferred to American prisons, should the administration put forward a plan to do so."
Reid's comments nevertheless revealed how uneasy Democrats are with the yet-to-be released details for a closure plan. When asked about the change in tone, a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said, "Members of the caucus were sick of getting walloped by Republicans over this phony, made-up issue."
Democrats, according to the aide, "had been looking for signals from the White House to provide some cover on the issue, and it didn't come."
Senate Democratic leaders made the decision last night, according to Manley, to strike the $80 million from the war spending bill after a discussion with the White House.
"They did not object," Manley said of White House officials.
Democratic leaders informed the White House that they would withhold funds for closing Guantanamo until the administration presents a detailed plan for its closure.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he will present an amendment this week that will "prohibit all funds in the supplemental and all future funds" for the closure of Gitmo until the White House presents the plan.
The current bill Inouye crafted in his committee gives the Department of Justice $30 million for its part, including funds for investigating Bush-era interrogation policy, and fences off the remaining $50 million for the Pentagon pending a plan.
The House withholds all funding in its version of the supplemental bill.
Senate Republicans, feeling they had gained the upper hand on Democrats in recent weeks as they railed against closing the facility and moving detainees to the U.S., said they still intend to offer amendments related to the closure.
One amendment would, using funding restraints, have the effect of banning all detainees from the United States.
Another joint amendment by Sens. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would have the same effect. It would say all detainees who are non-U.S. citizens cannot be placed on U.S. soil, but instead would be placed in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security until which time they can be extradited.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he thinks the Obama administration has "paid a price" for setting a date certain. During the presidential campaign, McCain noted that he, too, supported closing Gitmo, but he said a plan needs to be in place before anything happens.
The issue was to be the central fight on the war spending bill, as rarely-unified Republicans attempt to capitalize further on what they see as a popular issue with the American people, keeping the remaining detainees from placing a foot on American soil.
Congressional Democrats, lacking clarity from the Obama administration, had been at odds over how to move forward.
Last week the House passed legislation requiring the details of such a plan by Oct. 1. .
A vote would have been exceedingly difficult for Democrats, illustrated by the about-face this weekend by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.
Webb, a former Navy secretary, told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that while he praised the president's timeline back in January, he had studied the issue with his staff and changed his mind. The senator also lauded the detention center's unique set up, its isolated location thwarting listening devices and its secure courtrooms for sensitive military commissions.
"We shouldn't be creating artificial timelines," Webb said.
Gitmo should be closed eventually, he added, but only after all of its inmates are processed, a problem because some prisoners of war are expected to be held indefinitely. Webb also stipulated that no prisoners should be brought to the United States.
This issue is not new to the Senate or to some members of Obama's administration.
As senators in July 2007, now-Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voted to block detainees from being placed on U.S. soil.
The amendment to a college funding bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has given 14 Senate floor speeches already this year on the topic, stated, "It is safer for American citizens if captured members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are not housed on American soil where they could more easily carry out their mission to kill innocent civilians."
The nonbinding amendment went on to say that "detainees housed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including senior members of Al Qaeda, should not be released into American society, nor should they be transferred stateside into facilities in American communities and neighborhoods."
Then-Sen. Obama was not present for the vote.
On Monday, McConnell asked, "What's changed?"
"America is still at war against terror networks around the world. The detainees held at Guantanamo are still some of the most dangerous terrorists alive -- indeed, over the past two years, the inmates there have been winnowed down to an even higher percentage of committed killers than before. And Americans still don't want these men in their neighborhoods."
Indeed, in a new FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, just over half of Americans, 55 percent, oppose transferring detainees to prison facilities in the United States. But they are divided on whether bringing the detainees to the United States will put the country at risk. While some 43 percent think transferring the detainees to U.S. prison facilities would make the country less safe, about the same number -- 45 percent -- think it would not make much of a difference. Few -- 8 percent -- think it would make the United States safer.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was one of few in his party to challenge the argument publicly. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has taken a wait-and-see approach. Reid had said previohe is waiting for the outcome of a commission study due out in July.
Echoing the words of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a case in which the Bush administration's detention policies were rebuffed, Durbin said, "A state of war is not a blank check for the president."
Durbin noted that no Republican objected when the previous administration announced it was closing Gitmo, and said, "Guantanamo became an international embarrassment for the United States and, sadly, tragically, a recruiting tool for terrorists like Al Qaeda."
Some Republicans agree.
"Guantanamo is a serious blot on our reputation," former Secretary of State James Baker, a widely respected diplomat and member of the George H.W. Bush administration, has said..
This perception argument has split some in the Republican Party. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who just returned from Gitmo, praised the facility but acknowledged the "perception problem" overseas, and said the facility should be closed though not by a date certain.
Still, others, like McConnell and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who has traveled to the island facility three times, have said there's no better place than Guantanamo for the prisoners and it should remain in service.
"I can't imagine what would happen if they close this place," Inhofe said in a video posted on YouTube during his February visit to the prison. "If they close this place, then you're going to have to find other places. They've identified 17 other places, including my home state of Oklahoma. That would be a terrible risk to us and to all of Oklahoma, and the same would be true of any and all other states."
Webb, on Sunday, appeared to hold out hope that Obama would relax his stand, as he has done on a number of other issues
"They've said a lot of things and taken a look and said some other things. So let's process these people in a very careful way and then take care of it," he said.
Other amendments to the supplemental are expected to cause some heartburn, though not nearly with the force of the Guantanamo amendment.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a member of leadership, had planned to offer an amendment to strip out the $30 million portion of the Guantanamo funding, as he awaits an answer from Attorney General Eric Holder as to what went on during his time in the Clinton administration when rendition and interrogations took place. Holder could not recall the details of the policy at a hearing last week.
Lieberman and Graham also intended to offer an amendment related to detainee abuse photos being released to the public, something the Obama administration recently halted pending a fight in the courts. The senators had few details last week, noting it was a delicate balance between the public's right to know and putting U.S. troops overseas at risk.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was expected to go after money for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The administration has sought $100 billion in borrowing authority for the IMF, with the projected taxpayer risk from nonpayment projected to be $5 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
DeMint, with the support of mostly Republicans, will try to strip out this money, though a senior Senate Republican leadership aide said the amendment will likely fail.
A vote on the final war spending bill, with whatever changes might come related to Guantanamo, comes at a delicate time for the Obama administration.
The president is set to give what the White House has called a major speech to the Muslim World in Egypt in less than three weeks. That is nearly exactly the time the Congress will vote on final passage of the legislation.