WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats, dissatisfied with President Obama's lack of a detailed plan to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, yesterday rejected his request for $80 million to transfer the 240 detainees still held there, a high-profile rebuke to Obama, who has pledged to close the facility within a year of taking office.
While saying they will grant Obama's funding request for combat operations and diplomacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, top Senate Democrats declared yesterday that they won't approve the Guantanamo money until they see an acceptable plan to deal with the suspected terrorists - one that doesn't include transferring them to American soil.
"The administration has not come up with a plan at this point," Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat in the Senate, said in advance of an expected Senate vote today on an amendment to keep the detainees outside the United States. "The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown."
The House took a similar action last week, approving $96 billion for the two wars, but leaving out $80 million for Guantanamo and adding a ban on moving any detainees to US soil until two months after Obama submits a plan for their relocation.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday that lawmakers were right to insist on more details on closing Guantanamo, and that Obama would offer a "hefty part" of his plan tomorrow in a major policy speech.
The congressional setback on Guantanamo raises the stakes for Obama's speech, which comes after a series of controversial decisions that drew applause from conservatives and grumbling from liberals. Facing strong Republican opposition to closing Guantanamo, he must also reassure his liberal supporters who are angry at his decision to restart a revamped version of military tribunals for some detainees - a justice system he condemned as a candidate.
Obama has said he wants many of the detainees to be returned to their home countries, but has not ruled out trying others in federal courts and imprisoning them in the United States.
The main sticking point between the White House and Congress is the prospect that Obama, unable to repatriate most of the detainees, will have to put many of them on US soil. Republicans in the House and Senate introduced legislation that would block that move, and some moderate Democrats - fearful of voter backlash - supported them.
The decision to buck the president on Guantanamo left Democrats on the defensive and Republicans reveling at the discord.
Harry Reid, the Senate's top Democrat, said he agreed with Obama on closing Guantanamo because it stirs anger among violent Islamic extremists and "makes us less safe." But he warned yesterday that Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, will not act "without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."
His Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell, faulted Obama for announcing an "arbitrary timeline" to close Guantanamo by next January. Many of the detainees' home countries in Europe won't take them, he said yesterday, and "among those who have been released, about 12 percent of them have returned to the battlefield. . . . It makes you wonder why we're closing it in the first place."
Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama's presidential rival, agrees with closing Guantanamo, but said on the Senate floor yesterday that Obama has bungled the issue. "The lack of a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan led to a predictable political backlash on Guantanamo," McCain said. "Instead of unifying Americans behind a plan that keeps us safe and honors our values, the administration's course of action has unified the opposition to moving forward."
Guantanamo, located on a US Navy base in Cuba, was set up in late 2001 to house Al Qaeda suspects, Taliban fighters, and "enemy combatants" swept up by US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The camp, which at its peak housed more than 600 detainees, was the target of dozens of lawsuits by human rights activists alleging that the government mistreated the inmates, conducted abusive interrogations, and denied them guaranteed Geneva Conventions rights as prisoners of war.
Caroline Frederickson, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, said she and others on the left believe that the White House and Democrats are reacting to Republican fearmongering about terrorists on US soil.
Any legitimate terror suspect, she said, would almost certainly be held in remote, high-security "supermax" federal prisons, which are already home to convicted terrorists like British shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"That's what these prisons are designed for," she said.
But Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Obama must set aside his campaign rhetoric and make a pragmatic decision on Guantanamo, knowing that the consequences could result in another horrific attack on the nation. The president, he suggested, may have submitted a subpar plan knowing Congress would turn him down. "The notion that you're going to placate your [political] friends by closing Guantanamo, that's never going to work," said Phillips.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon said yesterday that it still plans to follow the president's orders and shut down the Guantanamo prison by January as Obama has ordered. But Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said that at least some funding needs to be passed now or else it would be "exceedingly difficult" to meet Obama's target date.