President Barack Obama's promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison suffered a blow on Tuesday when his allies in the Senate said they would refuse to finance the move until the administration delivers a satisfactory plan for what to do with the detainees there.
As the Senate took up Obama's request for money for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats reversed course and said they would deny the request for $80 million for the Justice and Defense departments to relocate the 240 detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They would also indefinitely bar the government from transferring any of the facility's prisoners into the United States, though the ban could be relaxed in subsequent legislation.
A vote is expected Wednesday on an amendment by Sens. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, and James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, that would put the restrictions in the war-funding measure. While allies such as No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois cast the development as a delay of only a few months, other Democrats have made it plain they do not want any of Guantanamo's detainees sent to the United States to stand trial or serve prison sentences.
"We don't want them around," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
The Senate move matches steps taken by the House and threatens to paralyze the Obama administration's entire plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by January. In recent weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder had sought to reassure skeptical lawmakers, but Congress appears unconvinced and may force the detention facility to remain in operation.
It's also evidence that a weeks-long Republican effort against Obama's order to close the Guantanamo facility is paying off. "Guantanamo is the perfect place for these terrorists," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Democrats and other Republicans _ including last year's Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona _ say it is time to close the facility, where detainees can be held for years without being charged.
But McCain said in a floor speech Tuesday that Obama has bungled the Guantanamo issue.
"The lack of a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan led to a predictable political backlash on Guantanamo," McCain said. "Instead of unifying Americans behind a plan that keeps us safe and honors our values, the administration's course of action has unified the opposition to moving forward and move forward we must." Even Durbin acknowledged that Obama had put Democrats in an awkward spot by sending up a request for funding to close the prison without an accompanying plan.
"The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown. We were being asked to defend a plan that hasn't been announced," Durbin said. "And the administration said, 'Understood. Give us time to put together that plan and we'll come to you in the next appropriations bill."'
Under the separation of powers outlined in the US Constitution, Congress has control over spending of almost all government money. Thus, it can stop virtually any program by refusing to provide money to carry it out.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that lawmakers were correct to insist on details on closing the detention facility. He said the president on Thursday would outline "a hefty part" of his agenda for the often-criticized facility. A key piece of the Justice Department's plan has been to send many detainees abroad, but if Congress were to bar detainees from being transported to the United States, even for trial, it would become much more difficult to persuade other countries to accept them.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell said at least some funding needs to be passed now or else it would be "exceedingly difficult" to meet Obama's target date.
Durbin said Obama's plan to close Guantanamo is not dead, only that the funding will have to wait until the administration devises an acceptable plan to handle the closure and transfer the detainees. The Senate's move was cast as a tactical retreat until the administration develops a plan to close the facility. But the political anxiety felt by many Democrats runs deeper. Many simply don't want them sent to US soil, even if they're held in high-security prisons.
"I can't make it any more clear," Reid said. "We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States." Reporters repeatedly pressed Reid on whether his opposition to "releasing" inmates meant he is also against transferring them to the US to stand trial. He appeared to indicate that was the case, though spokesman Jim Manley said later that Reid may have misspoken. House Democrats dropped funding to close Guantanamo when producing their version of the war funding bill, which easily passed last week.
The Guantanamo controversy has roiled Washington, with most Republicans adamantly opposed to closing the prison, which mostly holds enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan. Republicans say abuses at the facility are a thing of the past.
The Senate's massive war spending measure otherwise sticks closely to Obama's request. The House version effectively exceeds Obama's request by almost $12 billion, adding $2.2 billion for foreign aid and eight C-17 cargo planes despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' desire to cease purchases of the aircraft as part of his effort to overhaul Pentagon procurement.