Republicans have searched for a good political issue this year as their traditional three Gs — gays, guns and God — seem to have lost some steam. Now a fourth G — Guantanamo Bay — is handing them a big victory, forcing President Barack Obama to reconsider his plans to close the Cuba-based prison, with no obvious alternative in sight.
One of Obama's first acts as president was to order the closing within a year of the contentious lockup for terror suspects. Obama had campaigned on the issue, but important Republicans pounced on what they considered a crucial flaw: the lack of detailed plans for where the roughly 240 inmates would go.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, gave dozens of speeches and interviews saying the United States would be no safer by moving terrorists to U.S. soil. Other Republicans suggested terrorists might escape, recruit new allies or become magnets for attacks.
Ill-timed rebuke for Obama
Democratic lawmakers largely ignored the remarks for months, but by this week the public agitation was too much. The Senate voted 90-6 Wednesday to block the transfer of Guantanamo detainees, an ill-timed rebuke for Obama, scheduled to give a major speech Thursday about terrorism.
Even the Republicans' less partisan members could scarcely believe the breadth of their political victory in a season where criticisms of Obama's economic policies have yielded little.
"It's fascinating to see the Democrats in the Senate embrace the position that we Republicans have had all along," said Republican Sen. Susan Collins. "There were so many obvious unanswered questions about the president's plan."
Collins said it was uncharacteristic for Obama to plunge so deeply into a complicated issue without a detailed road map.
The topic clearly flummoxed some of Obama's chief Democratic allies. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid surprised and confused fellow Democrats Tuesday when he said, speaking about the detainees at Guantanamo: "Part of what we don't want is them be put in prisons in the United States."
Reid spokesman Jim Manley tried to modify the stand Wednesday, saying Reid "will evaluate it carefully" if the administration "proposes a plan that recommends the transfer of some detainees to American prisons."
The breaks kept falling the GOP's way. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress on Wednesday that bringing Guantanamo detainees to the United States could pose a number of risks, even if they were kept in maximum-security prisons.
Rep. John Boehner, leader of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives, cited Mueller's comments as he crowed about his party's victory. "Like a solid majority of Americans," he said, "Republicans strongly oppose releasing terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay facility or transferring them to the United States."
Trying to sidestep political quicksand
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to sidestep the political quicksand Wednesday. He said Obama "hasn't decided where some of the detainees will be transferred."
Senate Democrats might have given Obama more time to devise a Guantanamo strategy if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a leading Democrat, were not drawing fire for saying the CIA had misled her about interrogation techniques used on terror suspects.
"Especially because of what happened to Pelosi, they had to stanch the bleeding," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. National security remains the Democrats' most troublesome issue, he said, and Pelosi's comments and the Guantanamo flap gave Republicans some welcome openings this month, even if they should prove short-lived.
Republicans have been losing traction on some of their favorite political issues lately, which made the Guantanamo flare-up all the more welcome. Opposing gay marriage, for instance, has been a losing proposition even in competitive states such as Iowa.
Republican-led gun rights advocates notched a win Wednesday when the House voted to allow people to carry loaded guns in national parks. In general, however, the economy and foreign affairs have pushed debates about gun rights to the background, along with religious matters such as prayer in schools.
Baker said congressional Democrats had to stand against releasing Guantanamo detainees because it was "one of the few issues the Republicans had of any political value."