The Senate voted Monday night to ease restrictions on transferring suspected terrorist detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to the U.S., overcoming GOP objections and giving President Obama at least a temporary victory on the annual defense policy bill.
But the final fight is still to come when the Senate will have to work out a compromise with the House, which passed its own defense policy bill earlier this year that includes strict restrictions preventing transfers.
Senate Republicans tried to block the loosening of Guantanamo transfers, saying they fear it could end up granting detainees constitutional rights they don’t get when they’re being held at the prison at the U.S. base in Cuba.
“I have to make sure that our country remains safe and that we don’t send people from Guantanamo back in the fight against our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan or against our interests anywhere in the world,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican who led the GOP fight, told reporters.
But her amendment to preserve tight restrictions was defeated 55-43. Three Democrats — Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas and Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina— voted for her proposal, while three Republicans — Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — voted against it.
The vote marks a major shift from last year, when Ms. Ayotte’s proposal passed on a 54-41 vote.
Six senators who voted for the amendment last year switched their votes this year, while a number of others have retired from the Senate and were replaced by opponents.
Minutes after the Ayotte amendment was defeated, the Senate turned back another proposal by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, that would have also allowed transfers but would have made clear Congress didn’t intend for the detainees to get any new rights even if they were on U.S. soil.
But even with that defeat, the underlying defense bill still includes the relaxed restrictions on transfers.
Next up on the bill is a fight over the military’s sexual assault policy.
Sen. Kirsten E. rGillibrand, New York Democrat, has proposed an amendment that would strip commanders of their ability to prosecute some military crimes, such as sex assault. She said it would improve the fairness of the process and reduce retaliation, which reports show have both been problems in these kinds of cases.
She got a boost Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would support her plan.
“I will support Gillibrand, and Sen. Levin knows that,” Mr. Reid told reporters.
Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal has divided the Democratic Party. Mr. Levin and Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, have both spoken out publicly against Mrs. Gillibrand’s proposal.
Mrs. Gillibrand’s office says she has support of 50 senators, as of Tuesday afternoon. Still, that’s not enough to pass the 60-vote threshold that opponents are likely to require.