President Obama is finalizing a plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and bring terrorist suspects to the U.S., but White House threats that he may take unilateral action and close the prison through executive order are drawing a fierce rebuke from Capitol Hill.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Congress would use every option available to block Mr. Obama from closing the facility, which is in Cuba.
“It’s disgraceful, because I have asked for six and a half years for this administration to come forward with a plan — a plan that we could implement and close Guantanamo,” Mr. McCain told reporters Thursday. “He lies when he says that he really wants to close Guantanamo with the cooperation of Congress, because he’s never sent over a plan.”
And new House Speaker Paul Ryan flatly rejected bringing detainees to the U.S.
“I think Guantanamo detainees should be in Guantanamo,” the Wisconsin Republican said in his weekly press conference.
He spoke just minutes after the House approved the 2016 defense policy bill, which contains a strict ban on bringing detainees to the U.S., and severe limits on how they can be shipped to other countries.
That bill cleared the House overwhelmingly and is expected to easily pass the Senate, setting up another test for Mr. Obama, who has expressed opposition to the Guantanamo language but will be hard-pressed to veto a bill that has such widespread support.
Last year’s defense bill directed Mr. Obama to submit a plan laying out how he might close the prison, which was supposed to give the White House a chance to make its case.
The administration is finally readying that plan, and its release is expected within days. It’s expected that the plan will recommend speeding up detainee transfers to other nations, and bringing some detainees to prisons in the U.S.
Twenty-eight retired generals and admirals urged Mr. Obama in a letter Thursday to submit a plan to Congress soon, saying his efforts to date have been “inadequate” and that closing the prison “will make Americans more secure and remind the world that we are prepared to live by the rule of law and values we cherish.”
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest rejected Mr. Ryan’s position, implying he lacks national security credentials and saying his stance contradicts the opinions of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell.
“The view that Speaker Ryan is expressing is in contradiction to some of the brightest foreign policy thinkers in both parties,” Mr. Earnest said. “These are men and women who have had front-line responsibility for the safety and security of the United States in advancing our interests around the globe.”
He also said that Mr. Ryan’s background as a budget wonk also should help him understand the wisdom of closing the prison.
“Speaker Ryan spends a lot of time talking about the need to shrink government budgets,” Mr. Earnest said. “Closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay makes a whole lot of fiscal sense. The amount of money that is spent per detainee in Guantanamo Bay is far higher than the amount of money that is spent to detain and incarcerate convicted terrorists on U.S. soil right now.”
The furor over Guantanamo had intensified on Wednesday when Mr. Earnest, asked if the president would consider an executive order to close the facility, said that he would “not take anything off the table.” Mr. Obama has been trying to close the facility since his first days in office.
A day after he made that comment, Mr. Earnest appeared to backtrack, saying the question of whether Mr. Obama has the authority to close Guantanamo by executive order “is a question for lawyers to answer.”
“As the president’s spokesman here, I’m certainly not going to take anything off the table in terms of him doing everything he can to make progress on a national security priority that he’s identified,” Mr. Earnest said.
He added that the White House “is focused on working with Congress to get this done.”
The administration has transferred a handful of detainees out of the facility in recent days. There are currently 112 detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay, 53 of whom have been approved for transfer.
Mr. McCain warned that Congress would use its power of the purse to stop the president if he does try to use an executive order.
And Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said he will block confirmation of top Defense Department officials as long as the threat of an executive order remains in place.
Mr. Earnest criticized Mr. Roberts for playing politics.
“It seems to me that Senator Roberts has doubled down on his position of putting politics ahead of the national security of the United States,” he said. “That’s a particularly troubling position for the chairman of the Senate intel committee to take.” Mr. Roberts served as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee from 2003 to 2007.