WASHINGTON — If it takes shutting down the Senate to block the Obama administration from moving prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to U.S. soil, that’s exactly what some Republican senators plan to do.
Following several reports Aug. 3 that the White House was debating two distinct proposals for dealing with more than 250 prisoners still housed at the detention facility at the U.S. military base in Cuba, senators from various parts of the country pledged to fight any attempt to move the terrorism suspects to the United States, severely complicating President Obama’s plan to close the prison by January.
One proposal, according to the reports, would be to establish a jail and court complex either at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., or at a maximum-security facility in Standish, Mich., that the state is closing. A separate idea would refer the detainees’ cases to federal civilian courts in New York, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
“You can always shut down the Senate by simply putting the Senate in a quorum call and objecting to any unanimous consent to go back to business,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Tuesday.
Some in the Michigan delegation are open to the idea of housing the detainees in their state but still doubt that any plan could be enacted in time to meet Obama’s time frame for closing Guantanamo.
Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the current restrictions on moving the prisoners to the United States, enacted in the last supplemental funding bill (PL 111-32), would likely remain in effect. “The law is that they’ve got to come up with a plan,” he said. “I doubt that the simple announcement that they’re looking to these possibilities would constitute compliance.”
Similar restrictions are included in several fiscal 2010 bills now moving through Congress, creating a de facto deadline for the White House to present a more detailed plan, Levin said. “It surely has to be there by the end of the fiscal year,” he said.
Disaster to some, opportunity to others
The Kansas Republicans held multiple news conferences to drive home the idea that they would do everything they could to prevent detainees from being transferred to their state under any circumstances.
“We will use every legislative opportunity and every parliamentary tool we can to prevent this, maybe even shutting down the Senate,” Roberts said.
Roberts and the state’s senior senator, Republican Sam Brownback, are preparing legislative and procedural measures to pressure the administration to take Kansas off their list.
Brownback, the front-runner for an open-seat governor’s race next year, lamented that the administration made no attempt to work with him or local officials before “floating” this idea, adding that state and local officials were adamantly opposed.
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Levin said he discussed the prospect of using the Standish facility with administration officials as recently as last week and could support it if local officials go along.
He rejected the notion put forth by Republicans that the detainees cannot be held safely in U.S. prisons. “They ought to talk to local people in Standish. They don’t feel that way,” Levin said. “They are willing to do it, and it would be an important economic boost.”
Republican senators also oppose the other alternative: trying Guantanamo prisoners in East Coast federal civilian courts. They argue that any process not fully under the military’s jurisdiction could open a Pandora’s box of legal issues.
“Under military law, you can hold someone off the battlefield indefinitely if they present a danger. Under domestic criminal law, you need to try someone or let them go,” said Armed Services member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a military lawyer who is working with the administration to overhaul the military commissions process in the context of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill (HR 2647).
The Senate’s top Democrats — Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois — declined to comment on the reports of the administration’s deliberations over what to do with the prisoners.
Durbin has often argued that terrorism suspects are held in U.S. prisons now, with no adverse consequences. He has also acknowledged the effectiveness of the GOP tactic of offering Guantanamo amendments in a way that pressures Senate Democrats to go along.
Many senators said they would wait to see the official plan before deciding whether to support or oppose the president. But if the reports are accurate, the White House will face a torrent of opposition.
“If they come up with this as their plan,” said Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., “they better get ready for another fight.”
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