Senate Democrats will pull money to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison from a war funding bill instead of face an onslaught of criticism from Republicans, CNN has learned.
Democratic leaders made the decision Tuesday morning, according to two Senate Democratic leadership sources. It is a blow to President Obama who announced, as one of his first official duties as president, that he would close the base by next January 22. Republicans have argued it would be reckless to shutter the prison before the Obama administration has decided where to transfer the terrorism suspects who are detained there. The Senate war supplemental bill, which is scheduled to be voted on this week, included $80 million for the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice to begin the process of shutting down the prison. Now, that money will be stripped out and replaced with language saying no funds can be used to transfer detainees from Guantanamo, a military installation in Cuba, to the United States and no additional money will be approved until 60 days after the president submits to Congress his plan to close the facility. That language is similar to a provision in the House bill. Republicans launched a high-profile campaign against closing the base prematurely, just this morning releasing a statement headlined: “Meet your new neighbor, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad” “Republicans see this as a wedge issue against Democrats and we’re not going to let them do it,” explained one of the sources. Privately, some Democrats have complained the president put them in an awkward position of having to defend funding the closure before a plan was developed, one of the sources said. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday that there is “nothing to indicate” the deadline to close Guantanamo by January 2010 is “at all in jeopardy.” “As far as I can tell, everything remains on track for action to be taken with regard to the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility … according to the timeline prescribed by the president in the executive order,” Morrell said. He added that the Department of Defense officials who are “most intimately involved” with the effort to shut down the facility, including the Pentagon’s general counsel and deputy secretary, are in “near constant meetings with their counterparts at Justice, at State, in the White House on these very very complicated matters.” Senate Democrats follow in the steps of House Democrats, who have demanded that Obama submit a plan spelling out what the administration will do with the prisoners when it closes the facility. Last week, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wisconsin, added that requirement to the $96.7 billion war funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan. It directs the administration to provide details to Congress on where Guantanamo prisoners would be transferred, the cost of shutting down the facility and the cost of securing prisoners at other detention centers. The report is due by October 1. The move came as House Republicans introduced a bill called the “Keep Terrorists Out of America Act.” It would bar the administration from moving any detainee to the U.S. without first getting approval from the governor and state legislature of any state selected to receive detainees. Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said, “The president made a decision to close Gitmo to fulfill a campaign promise, perhaps to satisfy world opinion, without (in) any way thinking through the consequences of his action or what was going to happen next, where these detainees were going to go.” Where to send the prisoners has been a hot-button issue on both sides of the aisle — especially among Republicans who have continued to beat the “Not in my backyard” drum. Several Republicans members of Congress want the administration to halt plans to move “violent terrorists” from Guantanamo. “This presents a clear and present danger to American lives,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. “All the administration has to do is reconsider. They don’t have to keep this misguided campaign promise.” ”The world suddenly did not become safer on January 20, 2009,” House Minority Leader John Boehner has said. “Our constituents don’t want these terrorists in their neighborhoods.” Kansas, for one, is home to both a federal penitentiary and a maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth. The state’s top senator is wholeheartedly against moving detainees there. “Please not at Leavenworth,” Brownback recently said. “This is a hot topic in my state.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech Monday that the American people “want to keep the terrorists at Guantanamo out of their neighborhoods and off of the battlefield.” It’s a sentiment his Democratic colleague seems to agree with. “I think that the people who have been held in Guantanamo are being charged essentially for acts of international terror, for acts of war, and they don’t belong in the judicial system, and they don’t belong in our jails,” Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, said on ABC’s This Week Sunday. Last Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder, faced with bipartisan resistance, promised a Senate committee he would not release suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo into the United States. He was less clear about what would be done with any detainees the administration decides are not terrorists. “We would not bring them into this country and release them, anyone, we would consider to be a terrorist,” Holder told the panel. He said the safety of the American public will be his “paramount concern.” Holder emphasized he has made no decisions about whether or when any of the 241 remaining detainees may be moved. But a day after House Democrats rejected the president’s funding request to close down the prison, a senior Senate Democrat seemed to suggest he would support the plan. “The president has already said he’s going to close it down,” said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “and we ought to put the money there to continue on the pathway and get it done before the year is out.”