Congress sent strong signals this week that President Obama’s 5-year-old vow to close Guantanamo Bay prison is far from coming to fruition, as partisan camps drew battle lines over whether the facility in Cuba bottles up terrorists or simply breeds more abroad.
Senate Democrats held a hearing on closing the detention center this week, but it was their first since 2009 and revealed little agreement between Mr. Obama’s party and conservatives. In the House, lawmakers shot down a measure that would clear the way for transferring prisoners off the island.
Almost a dozen years after the Bush administration set up the detention center on the U.S. naval base in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Obama redoubled his efforts this spring to close the facility as many of its 166 detainees refused food for weeks, protesting conditions there and their prolonged detention.
But Republicans say the Obama administration is ignoring the realities of the war on terrorism and have put the brakes on plans to provide for the release or transfer of detainees to maximum-security prisons in the U.S.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said Guantanamo is “one of the few good deals that we have in government.”
“I think we pay $4,000 a year, and [Cuba’s communist government] doesn’t collect about half the time,” he said Thursday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
But Democrats contend the U.S. is losing hundreds of millions of dollars in operation costs — roughly $2.7 million per detainee each year in Cuba compared to $78,000 at a high-security facility in the United States — and ceding its moral high ground, as terrorism suspects are detained without charges or trial.
Their detention, coupled with the practice of force-feeding those on hunger strike, is fostering ill-will abroad and serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists, they said.
To some lawmakers, the debate is over the nuts and bolts of how to close the base.
“We still don’t have a coherent plan from the administration,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Thursday. “What about those who we can’t bring to trial or can’t release? Where will they go back to if they’re released? All of these are questions that need to be answered.”
A legislative aide said one of the first meetings that Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, had with president-elect Obama in 2008 was about Guantanamo. But, Mr. McCain said, “they were pushed by the left so far that they really couldn’t ever come up with a coherent plan.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said the administration can back up its rhetoric by immediately transferring 86 prisoners who have been cleared to be repatriated to a foreign nation.
Christopher Anders, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel, said the Obama administration has a good track record of making sure these detainees are imprisoned, monitored or rehabilitated in their new countries.
“No one’s going to be dropped off at the airport with $20 in their pockets,” he said.
The provisions would make it easier to transfer detainees to U.S. detention centers, or to foreign nations if they are unlikely to re-engage in terrorist activity. It also provides for the temporary transfer of detainees to Defense Department medical facilities ” to prevent death or significant imminent harm.”
But lawmakers in the Republican-led House on Tuesday, on a 247-175 vote, defeated an amendment from Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, that would have permitted the release or transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. or foreign nations if the secretary of defense signed off on certain conditions.
In a policy statement, the White House condemned a section of the House defense spending bill that would prohibit the modification or creation of a facility in the United States to house the detainees — a provision that Mr. Moran had tried to strip from the bill.
“The U.S. should not stand for indefinite detention,” a spokeswoman for Mr. Moran said Thursday. “It’s un-American and against our founding principle of justice.”