The Senate’s top appropriator Monday vowed to restore funding President Obama requested to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, challenging his own Democratic Party leaders who expressed skepticism about the administration’s plan.
“It’s going to be in the bill,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye told The Washington Times. “Something like this should be resolved in the conference.”
The Hawaii Democrat said the $81 million the White House wants to shut down the detention center at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba could come with conditions, such as withholding the money until Mr. Obama presents a plan for relocating the roughly 240 terrorist suspects locked up on the island.
House Democratic leaders left the requested money out of their version of a $94 billion supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bucking the White House’s call for funding as it tries to make good on Mr. Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay by January.
But the maneuver shored up Republican support critical to passing the bill and to avoid an embarrassing defeat for Mr. Obama at the hands of antiwar Democrats who will not support the additional funding primarily for military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans, who have been searching for an issue that resonates with voters, hammered the Guantanamo Bay closure in recent weeks.
Democratic leaders also balked at the administration’s lack of a plan to relocate the prisoners, even though they agree that the prison has become a symbol of U.S. excesses during President George W. Bush’s war on terror.
“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, Wisconsin Democrat.
Mr. Obey, who supports the idea of closing the facility, said that when White House officials develop a plan, “they are welcome to come back and talk to us about it.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he agreed with Mr. Obey.
“It would be better if we had specifics,” Mr. Reid said, adding that he would be meeting with Mr. Inouye and House Democratic leaders to decide how to handle the funding request.
Mr. Inouye’s suggestion to make the funding conditional on the White House presenting a plan would go a long way toward satisfying critics on both sides of the aisle.
It also would threaten to stall the funds and force Mr. Obama to break his campaign promise to abandon the prison within a year.
“It should be clear to everyone at this point that the administration got ahead of itself by announcing an arbitrary closing date for Guantanamo before it even drew up a list of safe alternatives,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a floor speech Wednesday.
His speeches about Guantanamo Bay have become a daily routine in the Senate chamber.
Mr. McConnell demanded Monday that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. provide information about which detainees will be released or transferred overseas and whether any will be moved into the U.S.
“Americans want to know that on the issue of Guantanamo the administration is as concerned about safety as it is about symbolism,” Mr. McConnell said. “They’re concerned about the administration’s plans for releasing or transferring some of the most dangerous terrorists alive. They want to know that these terrorists won’t end up back on the battlefield or in their backyards.”
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 send the detainees.
Administration officials told the Associated Press yesterday that they are closing in on a deal to ship as many as 100 Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay to a terrorist rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia.
In Riyadh, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was en route to visit troops in Afghanistan, said the administration had a “positive impression” of the Saudis’ rehabilitation program as a destination for at least some of the Yemeni detainees. Negotiations between the U.S., Yemeni and Saudi governments, however, remain complex and challenging.
The Yemeni prisoners make up nearly half the prison population at Guantanamo Bay and the Saudi deal could speed up closing the camp. The administration would still have about 140 terrorist suspects to relocate.
One of the few senators to publicly support bringing the Guantanamo Bay terror suspects into the U.S. is Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent. He is also backing Mr. Obama’s funding request.
“Gitmo has been proven to be a real disservice to our country and I would like to see it shut down as soon as possible,” he said. “We have very violent criminals who are born and raised right here in the USA. I think we know how to handle violent people.”
Mr. Sanders was one of three Democrats who voted against a Senate resolution in July 2007 that opposed bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. He was joined by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia in the lopsided 94-3 vote.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were senators at the time, voted for the resolution. Mr. Obama missed the vote.
Senate Democrats generally back Mr. Obama’s promise to close the prison camp, but members were tentative about providing the funds - about $50 million for the Defense Department and about $30 million for the Justice Department - without plans for how to replace the camp.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he probably would support putting the funds in the supplemental war spending bill, adding that he has long wanted to close the prison.
But he also questioned the timing.
“Obey may be right on this,” he said. “I just [know] we are going to have to put some money in there to close [Guantanamo Bay] sometime soon. If it’s not in the supplemental then it’s going to have to be in the regular appropriations bill when we bring that up later.”