Handing President Barack Obama a partial victory in his effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, House Democrats on Thursday repelled a Republican effort to block transfer of any of the detainees to the U.S.
Instead, by a 224-193 vote, the House stood by a Democratic plan to allow suspected enemy combatants held at the controversial facility in Cuba to be shipped to U.S. soil — but only to be prosecuted for their suspected crimes.
The Guantanamo restrictions were attached by House-Senate negotiators on a $42.8 billion homeland security appropriations bill. The measure subsequently passed by a 307-114 vote.
President Barack Obama has ordered the facility closed in January but has yet to offer a plan to meet his deadline.
Democratic leaders had to push hard to win the vote because many Democrats two weeks ago had cast a nonbinding but politically safe vote against any Guantanamo detainee transfers. But several Democrats from swing districts said they saw little political risk on Thursday's vote.
"It's a non-issue. Inside the (Washington) Beltway stuff," said first-term Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y. "People care about jobs, the economy, health care."
"I haven't had one person ask me about Guantanamo," said Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind. He added that he does "not in the least" fear it as an issue in next year's elections.
Permitting Guantanamo prisoners to be transferred to U.S. soil to stand trial had been a bipartisan compromise earlier. It mostly tracks current restrictions put in place in June and is similar to a version backed by Republicans earlier in the year. In fact, Republicans such as top Appropriations panel Rep. Jerry Lewis of California helped fashion the compromise.
But in the absence of a plan from the administration for closing the facility, Lewis has toughened his talk, calling the administration's plan misguided and potentially dangerous.
"Terrorists should not be treated like common criminals in federal court," Lewis said. "These detainees are enemies of the state, and should be treated as such by being held and brought to justice right where they are — in Guantanamo Bay."
Democrats say that Republicans are simply seeking a political opening.
Still, the public is mixed at best on the idea of closing Guantanamo and transferring some of its prisoners to the U.S. Respondents to an AP/Gfk poll in June found Americans evenly divided on whether they support Obama's decision to close Guantanamo. A Gallup poll taken around the same time — but with the question worded differently — found that respondents opposed closing Guantanamo by a 2-1 margin and rejected the idea of moving detainees to their states by a 4-1 margin.
Several of the fiscal 2010 funding bills contain varying restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees, reflecting widespread opposition among voters. The Senate-passed defense appropriations bill, for example, contains an outright ban on releasing Guantanamo detainees into the U.S., including for trial or incarceration.
The underlying spending bill also backs the Obama administration's refusal to release new photos showing U.S. personnel abusing detainees held overseas. The measure supports Obama's decision to allow the secretary of defense to bar the release of detainee photos for three years.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to obtain unreleased photos of detainee abuse under the Freedom of Information Act and won two rounds in federal court. The measure would essentially trump the ACLU's case.
In response, the administration has appealed to the Supreme Court and Obama has said he would use every available means to block release of additional detainee abuse photos because they could whip up anti-American sentiment overseas and endanger U.S. troops. His powers include issuing an order to classify the photos, thus blocking their release.
But the detainee photos provision earned a sharp rebuke from Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., normally a leadership loyalist from her perch as chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee. She said that "the people's right to know is more important than the government's desire to keep things secret."