Congress on Wednesday signaled it won’t close the prison at Guantanamo Bay or allow any of its suspected terrorist detainees to be transferred to the U.S., dealing what is likely the final blow to President Obama’s campaign pledge to shutter the facility in Cuba.
The move to block the prison’s closure was written into a massive year-end spending bill that passed the House on Wednesday evening on a vote of 212-206, part of a last-minute legislative rush by Democrats to push through their priorities before ceding the House to Republican control in January.
News of the Guantanamo provision brought a quick and sharp rebuke from the Obama administration Wednesday.
“We strongly oppose this provision,” Department of Justice spokesman Matt Miller said in a statement. “Congress should not limit the tools available to the executive branch in bringing terrorists to justice and advancing our national security interests.”
Current law allows the Justice Department to bring detainees to the U.S. for trial as long as the Justice Department gives Congress 45 days notice of the transfer.
The spending bill, which includes wide-ranging new regulations on food safety and shifts money to Democratic priorities, even as it also blocks the Guantanamo Bay transfers, is already two months overdue as Democrats have struggled to find ways to balance their policy preferences with the deteriorating fiscal condition of the government.
The spending bill freezes 2011 funding at the same level as 2010, or $1.09 trillion, which is less than Mr. Obama requested, but still more than Republicans wanted.
“I hope it does not represent too great an inconvenience to members of this body, who are much more comfortable providing budget-busting tax gifts to the economic elite in this country,” said a bitterly sarcastic Rep. David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who wrote the bill as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The bill now heads to the Senate, which is working on its own version of legislation to keep the government funded for the rest of fiscal 2011.
Republicans had pushed to cut spending to 2008 levels — before the stimulus package or the Wall Street bailouts — which they said would have reduced expenditures by $100 billion. They also said the Democratic bill undercuts important defense-spending needs.
“At a time when we should be supporting our troops, this bill uses defense funding as a piggy bank for the majority’s domestic priorities,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
Democrats said they already had to make cuts in important programs and needed to add funding to other priorities, such as Pell Grants to aid low-income college students.
The 423-page spending bill was released overnight, or less than 24 hours before House lawmakers were asked to vote on it.
Under the bill, the Defense Department would see a slight increase in funding for troop salaries and health benefits, while cuts would be made to domestic agencies.
Democratic leaders also tacked on a food-regulation bill that would give the government power to force food recalls. The measure passed the Senate last week but, because it deals with revenue, it ran afoul of the Constitution, which says all such measures must originate in the House. Tacking it onto the spending bill is a controversial way of speeding that process.
Mr. Obey was able to increase spending on some programs by shifting funding from agencies that saw one-time increases in 2010. For example, the end of the 2010 census allowed Mr. Obey to shift $7.7 billion away from that agency.
The final bill passed with no Republican support, while 35 House Democrats broke with their party leadership to also oppose the bill.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, said the bill contains an expansion of Indian gambling, while other Republicans said the bill would fund controversial parts of this year’s health care law.
The bill does kill funding for some programs entirely, including the Homeland Security Department office that was responsible for coordinating Gulf Coast rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
On Guantanamo Bay, by blocking the administration from spending money on a replacement prison or any prisoner transfers, Congress would effectively stop the administration from acting over the next year.
And with Republicans dead-set against closing the prison, and poised to take control of the House in January, chances are virtually zero that Congress will relent any time before Mr. Obama stands for re-election in 2012.
“None of the funds provided to the Department of Justice in this or any prior act shall be available for the acquisition of any facility that is to be used wholly or in part for the incarceration or detention of any individual detained at Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as of June 24, 2009,” the bill says.
The bill explicitly prohibits the transfer to the U.S. mainland of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Guantanamo Bay is a strategic intelligence facility to detain terror suspects. Passing this legislation effectively blocks the administration from haphazardly closing the doors of Gitmo,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole and now senior military fellow at Military Families United, a pro-defense lobby.
The legislative shackles came at the same time that a new report shows 150 former detainees, or more than 25 percent of the 598 who have been released from Guantanamo Bay, took up arms or worked against the U.S. in its war on terrorism after their release.
Closing the prison was one of Mr. Obama’s chief campaign pledges and was one of the first orders he issued after being inaugurated last year, when he set a one-year deadline for closure. But he’s struggled to carry it out, failing to meet his deadline and battling both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who fear a prison on U.S. soil would be riskier and could confer new rights on detainees.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a Senate panel that the administration was ready to move forward, but needed Congress to approve the money to buy a new prison in the United States. The department was eyeing a facility in Illinois, Mr. Obama’s home state, as a likely candidate for the massive conversion that would be required to hold detainees.