Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Thursday that he may seek to close the Guantanamo facility in Cuba - which is holding more than 300 al Qaida suspects - perhaps by including a requirement in the $100 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq the Congress will vote on next month.
Murtha wields extraordinary power in the House as chairman of the military appropriations subcommittee and as a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Murtha told reporters Thursday that he had not made a final decision on trying to order the closure, but that he had dispatched a member of the House to Guantanamo last month to investigate.
“He came back with a good schedule of closing it down; he said there are a number of prisoners we’d have to figure out what to do with,” Murtha said. “But we have a schedule that’s realistic and maybe in the next year, (we would) be able to close it down.”
The Associated Press later identified that member as Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
Murtha said it would be symbolically important to close Guantanamo as a way of trying to improve foreigners’ perceptions of the United States.
Wariness in the Senate
Some members of the Senate expressed caution about closing Guantanamo.
“I don’t know that I’d be in favor of that,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“In this situation, where do you put the bad guys, if not there?” Nelson asked. “I know it (Guantanamo) has become symbolic and ‘radioactive,’ but if not there, where? If you don’t put them in this sort of environment where you have control over them, you have to face them back on the battlefield. I don’t think you could just close it down.”
He also said the supplemental spending bill was not the right vehicle for deciding the future of the Guantanamo facility.
Another Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said closing the Guantanamo facility “is not a good idea unless we’ve got an alternative.”
Unlike the House, Senate rules require 60 votes to end debate and bring a bill to final vote.
The Democrats have 51 members, but that includes independent Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who strongly supports continued funding of the Iraq deployment. If the Guantanamo provision were in the spending bill, it’s not clear it could get 60 votes.
The decisive vote on money
The vote in Congress in the next several weeks on the $100 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan is shaping up as a decisive test of support for the Iraq war.
Murtha’s version of the spending bill — if it includes the Guantanamo provision — will put anti-war Democrats in a bind. They want to close the Guantanamo prison, but they also want to vote against the spending bill and cut off funds for the war.
In order to accomplish one of their goals, closing Guantanamo, they’d have to forego their other goal: ending the Iraq deployment.
“You could close Guantanamo; that’s a good move — but until the United States ends the occupation (of Iraq), we will still have this war,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D- Ohio.
Referring to Murtha and House Democratic leaders, Kucinich said, “They’re setting the stage for the approval of the supplemental (spending bill).”
At Thursday’s meeting of all Democratic House members, Kucinich said, “Mr. Murtha made it clear they’re going to approve funds in the supplemental for the war.”
As he was in 2004, Kucinich is a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Impatience with non-binding vote
On Thursday Kucinich and other House Democrats expressed impatience with next week’s House vote on a non-binding statement which will voice disagreement with President Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq.
Kucinich said on his recent visit to Democratic voters in New Hampshire “they’re not buying these symbolic gestures.”
Democratic leaders signaled that the non-binding resolution was a prelude to some future action that might require the president to withdraw troops. “This is a first step of many steps available to the Congress,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Some House Democrats will try to go further than the non-binding statement when the supplemental spending bill comes to a vote.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. told reporters Thursday, “The only real congressional power is the power of the purse.” Nadler will try to include in the spending bill a legally binding provision that would force Bush to use funds only for “the continued protection of members of the Armed Forces who are in Iraq pending their withdrawal.”
Nadler’s measure would require Bush to completely withdraw U.S. troops by Dec. 31 of this year.
Referring to the president, Nadler said, “He can veto the supplemental, but if he does, he runs out of money.”
Nadler said his goal was to avert more American casualties. He had a dire forecast for Iraq: “There’s going to be a civil war. I’d rather it be with 3,000 American dead than with 23,000 American dead.”