President Barack Obama won a modest victory Tuesday in his effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, with a Senate vote that allows the government to continue to move detainees at the facility to the U.S. to be prosecuted.
The measure passed the Senate by a 79-19 vote as part of a larger $44.1 billion budget bill for the Homeland Security Department.
The House already passed the measure and it now goes to Obama for his signature. The Guantanamo provision generally tracks restrictions already in place that block release of detainees in the U.S., but permits them to be tried here.
Obama in January ordered the facility closed within a year, but the administration has yet to deliver a plan and the effort has hit several roadblocks. Among the problems is unease among Obama's Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, who have refused to fund the effort.
Administration needs to develop plan
The plan adopted Tuesday requires the administration to develop a plan before any further transfers. It also requires 15 days' notice before a transfer can occur and a certification that the prisoner does not represent a security risk.
The Senate debate over Guantanamo prisoners was relatively sedate. Last week, House Democratic leaders had to press to defeat a GOP effort to block transfer of any of the Guantanamo Bay detainees to the U.S., even to face trial.
"Prosecuting these individuals in our U.S. courts simply will not work and there is too much at stake to grant the unprecedented benefit of our legal system's complex procedural safeguards to foreign nationals who were captured outside the United States during a time of war," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
"Guantanamo must be closed because it's become a recruiting tool for al-Qaida and other terrorists," countered Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Separately, a group of retired generals and war veterans Tuesday launched a national campaign to rally support for closing the prison and transferring its inmates.
The campaign, "CLOSE GITMO NOW" begins Tuesday with a relatively modest $100,000 ad buy on cable channels across the country, exhorting Congress to reject the "failed Bush-Cheney policies."
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 defense secretary to bar the release of detainee photos for three years.
Concerns about anti-American sentiment
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 bill would essentially trump the ACLU's case.
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.
The bill also would extend for three years the E-Verify program, which uses the Social Security Administration database so that employers can verify the immigration status of new hires. A GOP plan to permanently expand the voluntary program and make it mandatory for federal contractors — which passed the Senate in July — was dropped during House-Senate talks.
The E-Verify program is a favorite of lawmakers who prefer an enforcement-first approach to immigration policy. They want to make it mandatory for employers nationwide. But more liberal lawmakers want to pair it with other elements of immigration reform, such as creating a so-called pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in this country.
And Jim DeMint, R-S.C., complained that negotiators dropped a plan to require double-layer fences along 700 miles of the border with Mexico rather than vehicle barriers and high-tech equipment.
The spending bill provides the department with a 6 percent budget increase.