- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

House Democratic leaders bucked the White House on Monday by unveiling a war spending bill that does not fund President Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay prison camp and requires the administration to submit a progress report with specific performance benchmarks for the escalated mission in Afghanistan.

Bowing to strong Republican criticism, House leaders rejected Mr. Obama’s request for $81 million to close the detention center at the U.S. Navy base on Cuba, saying the White House lacks a plan to safely relocate the roughly 240 terrorist suspects held on the island.

“While I don’t mind defending a concrete program, I’m not much interested in wasting my energy defending a theoretical program,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, who supports Mr. Obama’s pledge to close the facility.

He said that when White House officials develop a plan, “they are welcome to come back and talk to us about it.”

Setting the benchmarks, which Mr. Obama opposed, was a nod to antiwar House Democrats and the party’s antiwar base, which want the U.S. to pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration will have to report to Congress in a year about its ability to help Afghanistan and Pakistan meet political and military goals.

Antiwar Democrats also played a prominent role in the political equation for dropping the Guantanamo Bay funding. A Democratic leadership aide said antiwar lawmakers could block the war spending unless Republicans were wooed. The aide, who did not want to be identified as discussing legislative strategy, said Republicans simply balked at the $81 million proposal.

Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who visited the prison camp a month ago, said closing the facility “just never stood up to logic.”

“There is no place on the planet to take the worst of the worst that would treat them as well as they are treated at [Guantanamo],” he said. “The bottom line really is that [if the prisoners are released], innocent people will die and some of them likely will be Americans.”

The White House declined to comment on either the lost funding to close Guantanamo Bay or the progress benchmarks attached to the war spending.

Senate Democrats have not supported use of the war-spending bill to close the prison camp, a strong signal that the move by House appropriators could kill the funding in the bill. The administration still could move forward with Mr. Obama’s promise to close the detention center by January 2010 and either reprogram funding for the job or seek another supplemental spending bill.

Lawmakers in both parties oppose moving the prisoners to their states. Speculation about shipping the terror suspects to prisons in Florida, Montana and Virginia, among others, has met stiff resistance. Several countries do not want to take the prisoners, either.

The Defense Department has confirmed that 18 former detainees had returned to the battlefield and that at least 40 more are suspected of having rejoined terrorist networks after being released from Guantanamo.

The White House has not announced where it intends to move the detainees.

Republicans, who have been searching for an issue that resonates with voters, hammered the Guantanamo Bay closure in recent weeks.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that the appropriate time for Congress to debate closing the prison camp is after “the administration has a plan to safely detain, prosecute or transfer these detainees.”

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