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.”
“With no safe alternative, this is the only sensible approach,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor, one in a series of speeches in recent days blasting the move.
Last week, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, issued a Web video that asked: “What are Democrats doing to keep America safe?” It charged that Mr. Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo and end harsh interrogation techniques that some criticize as torture would put the United States at risk of another Sept. 11-type terrorist attack.
On the video at JohnBoehner.House.gov, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, says, “The real question we now face is: What is President Obama’s strategy to confront this threat from radical jihadists?”
About 100,000 viewers had visited the video Web site as of Monday, according to Mr. Boehner’s office.
The war spending bill also would require the administration to submit a progress report to Congress before presenting an annual budget request next year.
The report must include five “concrete standards of performance” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including measures of political unity, reduced government corruption, improved security, improved cooperation on intelligence matters and improved government control of its territory.
Mr. Obey said he doubted that Mr. Obama would succeed in the war effort because Pakistan and Afghanistan are not committed to defeating Islamic extremists. He said success or failure is in the hands of Afghan politicians and the Pakistani military.
“I’m dubious about those hands,” he said.
The benchmarks nevertheless put the White House on the defensive when it reports to Congress next year before seeking more war funds.
Democrats fought unsuccessfully to use previous supplemental war spending bills to force President Bush to accept a troop withdrawal timetable for Iraq, which the administration opposed because it said it would hamstring the war effort.
Democrats ultimately succeeded in attaching performance benchmarks and reporting requirements for the Iraq mission to war spending bills. The measures did not affect the war strategy, although antiwar lawmakers and activists seized on the data to argue that the U.S. was losing the war.
The $94.2 billion spending bill, which is $9.3 billion more than the White House requested, funds most of Mr. Obama’s war plans other than the Guantanamo Bay prison closure.
Mr. Obama’s first war spending bill would double spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far this year and pay for military operations into the fall. If approved, it would boost 2009 war spending to about $160 billion, which is about $30 billion less than what the U.S. spent on the wars in 2008 and about $10 billion less than in 2007.
Mr. Obama, who as a senator criticized the Bush administration for paying for the wars with supplemental spending bills that increase federal debt, promised that future requests would be part of the regular budget.
The bill provided to lawmakers on Monday would push the cost of the wars to nearly $1 trillion since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Congressional Research Service.
It provide $78.4 billion to the Defense Department, nearly $5 billion more than the administration requested to fund added cargo planes, armored combat vehicles and other equipment.
Also, $10 billion was designated for foreign aid, including extra money to help Israel with security and Mexico with its drug war, and $2 billion - $1.5 billion more than Mr. Obama requested - would go fight pandemic flu.