Senate Republicans are offering the president a path in the annual defense policy bill to make good on a campaign promise and close Guantanamo Bay before leaving office.
The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the $612 billion bill with a bipartisan 22-4 vote on Thursday. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the committee, said the bill includes reforms of acquisition, retirement and personnel issues as well as a proposal to close the military prison in Cuba.
The bill would require the administration to provide Congress a comprehensive plan on how to close Guantanamo Bay that would need to be approved by both chambers of Congress. Once approved, Congress would give the administration whatever authority it needed to execute the plan.
“I’ve also been in favor of closing Guantanamo because of the image that Guantanamo has in the world, whether it’s deserved or not,” Mr. McCain said.
When asked if the provision could survive negotiations with the House, Mr. McCain said lawmakers understood the cost of keeping the prison open. It costs about $3.5 million per prisoner each year to detain them at Guantanamo Bay. A maximum security prison in the United States, however, would only cost about $70,000, Mr. McCain said.
The version of the defense policy bill that passed the House Armed Services Committee last month included tighter restrictions on transfers from Guantanamo Bay, including a prohibition on releasing prisoners to combat zones. The bill also would withhold a portion of the Defense Department’s budget until the administration provides documents surrounding the controversial prisoner swap for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held as a prisoner of war by al Qaeda.
The administration is currently prohibited from transferring detainees to the United States for any reason or from building any facility in the U.S. to house Gitmo prisoners. The president is also required to take precautions to prevent released detainees from engaging in terrorism and must notify Congress 30 days before any release.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have clamped down on the president’s ability to transfer detainees and essentially made it impossible for the president to close the prison before leaving office. Mr. McCain, who also supported that bill, said that legislation needed to be tough to make sure the president couldn’t repeat something like last year’s release of five Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl without any notification of Congress.
“What we were unhappy about, and I believe it’s understandable, was the president of the United States, in direct violation of law, released five high-level Taliban in exchange for Bergdahl and did not comply with the law,” Mr. McCain said. “That’s rather irritating to those of us who believe in the Constitution of the United States and obeying the law.”
The president, who has made closing the prison a signature goal of his presidency — including an executive order on his second day in office — would need to determine how to deal with the 113 prisoners who remain in the prison.
Mr. McCain said the president would need to come up with a plan to bring prisoners to American soil while still denying them the civil rights they would have as U.S. prisoners. In addition to keeping identical legal rights to what the prisoners have in Cuba, Mr. McCain said he would need to see a plan that put detainees in a prison in America that was still run by military personnel.
Mr. McCain said he hoped the path to close Guantanamo Bay will encourage the president to sign the defense policy bill that includes a funding mechanism he has previously threatened to veto.
“I hope that if we complete — and we have to go to the floor obviously and through conference — this proposal about Guantanamo Bay, which I am convinced is a very important proposal, that the president will then be more inclined to sign the bill since we all know Guantanamo was the president’s commitment when he came to office,” he said.
The bill meets the president’s funding level, but does so with $523 billion in the base budget and $90 billion in an overseas contingency operations account typically reserved for supporting war fighters in combat. The president had asked for $534 billion in the base budget and only $50.9 billion in the war fund.
Lawmakers added the extra nearly $40 billion to the war fund to fully fund the military while leaving sequestration caps in place. The president had threatened to veto any bill that left sequestration in place for nondefense agencies while boosting military spending. Military leaders have also warned that funding the department from the overseas contingency operations account is not ideal because it makes multiyear planning difficult.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted against the defense bill in committee because of the boost in war spending, saying it will set a bad precedent for future budgeting.
“If we don’t effectively find a way out of this [Budget Control Act] dilemma this year, then what we’ve done is institutionalize the OCO as a way to fund a defense bill every year,” he said.
Mr. Reed also warned that continued cuts to non-defense spending, including critical agencies like the FBI, State Department and Department of Homeland Security, was “missing the point about national security.”
Mr. Reed’s amendment to offer lawmakers an incentive to deal with sequestration failed on a party line vote. The proposal would have withheld the $39 billion added to the war chest until lawmakers found a solution for the budget caps.
While all Democrats on the committee supported his amendment, only three other senators joined him in voting no on the overall bill because it doesn’t deal with sequestration: Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
The bill will still need to pass the full Senate and be reconciled with the House, which is expected to vote on final passage of the bill Friday.