Image: Guantanamo Bay detention facility
Brennan Linsley  /  AP
U.S. officials say they will be hard-pressed to persuade other countries to accept released detainees when the United States has not done so.
updated 5/20/2009 8:39:55 AM ET 2009-05-20T12:39:55

President Barack Obama's promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison suffered a blow Tuesday when his allies in the Senate said they would refuse to finance the move until the administration delivers a satisfactory plan for what to do with the detainees there.

As the Senate took up Obama's request for money for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats reversed course and said they would deny the request for $80 million for the Justice and Defense departments to relocate the 240 detainees at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They would also indefinitely bar the government from transferring of any of the facility's prisoners into the United States, though the ban could be relaxed in subsequent legislation.

A vote is expected Wednesday on an amendment by Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and James Inhofe, R-Okla., that would put the restrictions in the war-funding measure.

While allies such as No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois cast the development as a delay of only a few months, other Democrats have made it plain they don't want any of Guantanamo's detainees sent to the United States to stand trial or serve prison sentences.

"We don't want them around," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

'Perfect place' for terrorists
The Senate move matches steps taken by the House and threatens to paralyze the Obama administration's entire plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by January. In recent weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder had sought to reassure skeptical lawmakers, but Congress appears unconvinced and may force the detention facility to remain in operation.

It's also evidence that a weeks-long GOP effort against Obama's order to close the Guantanamo facility is paying off.

"Guantanamo is the perfect place for these terrorists," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Democrats and other Republicans — including last year's GOP standardbearer, Sen. John McCain of Arizona — say it's time to close the facility, where detainees can be held for years without being charged.

Even Durbin acknowledged that Obama had put Democrats in an awkward spot by sending up a request for funding to close the prison without an accompanying plan.

"The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown. We were being asked to defend a plan that hasn't been announced," Durbin said. "And the administration said, 'Understood. Give us time to put together that plan and we'll come to you in the next appropriations bill.'"

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

White House Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that lawmakers were correct to insist on details on closing the detention facility. He said the president on Thursday would outline "a hefty part" of his agenda for the often-criticized facility.

A key piece of the Justice Department's plan has been to send many detainees abroad, but if Congress were to bar detainees from being transported to the United States — even for trial — it would become much more difficult to persuade other countries to accept them.

Target date in danger
At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell said at least some funding needs to be passed now or else it would be "exceedingly difficult" to meet Obama's target date.

Durbin said Obama's plan to close Guantanamo is not dead — only that the funding will have to wait until the administration devises an acceptable plan to handle the closure and transfer the detainees.

The Senate's move was cast as a tactical retreat until the administration develops a plan to close the facility. But the political anxiety felt by many Democrats runs deeper. Many simply don't want them sent to U.S. soil — even if they're held in high-security prisons.

"I can't make it any more clear," Reid said. "We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States."

Reporters repeatedly pressed Reid on whether his opposition to "releasing" inmates meant he is also against transferring them to the U.S. to stand trial. He appeared to indicate that was the case, though spokesman Jim Manley said later that Reid may have misspoken.

House Democrats dropped funding to close Guantanamo when producing their version of the war funding bill, which easily passed last week.

The Guantanamo controversy has roiled Washington, with most Republicans adamantly opposed to closing the prison, which mostly holds enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan. Republicans say abuses at the facility are a thing of the past.

The Senate's massive war spending measure otherwise sticks closely to Obama's request. The House version effectively exceeds Obama's request by almost $12 billion, adding $2.2 billion for foreign aid and eight C-17 cargo planes despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' desire to cease purchases of the aircraft as part of his effort to overhaul Pentagon procurement.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama revives Gitmo tribunals


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments