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Funding to Close Guantánamo Still a Mystery

With House and Senate lawmakers intent on finishing up the appropriations process before Sept. 30, President Barack Obama faces a tough timeline this summer for getting the money he wants to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison.

Democrats on both sides of the Capitol say that at the very least they want to pass all 12 appropriations measures — including the Defense Department spending bill that would contain any Guantánamo closure money — by the end of the fiscal year.

However, Obama has been waiting for a report from a special interdepartmental task force on how to deal with the hundreds of suspected terrorists now housed at the facility. That report is not due until July 21 and could come too late for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who has set a goal of having all his spending bills passed by the House before it recesses on July 31.

“There’s a train leaving town, which is Defense appropriations, and if [Obama] wants the funding on that train, he needs to one, come up with a plan, and two, convince a majority of Congress to support that plan,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has set a goal for the end of the fiscal year for floor passage of the appropriations bills. The Senate traditionally waits for the House to act on spending bills first, which might give Obama time to get the money into the Senate version of the DOD bill.

Plus, Inouye has left the door open to that, saying on the floor last month that: “Many of my colleagues are justifiably concerned about how the terrorists at Guantánamo will be handled. They deserve answers, but so, too, we must begin planning to close the prison.

“That work needs to begin soon for the good of our nation and the men and women still serving in harm’s way. It is up to the administration to fashion a plan, which can win the support of the American people and its Congressional representatives. As we approach the fiscal year 2010 budget, this will be a key element of our continued review of this matter.”

And it’s not as if the interdepartmental task force’s report will be delivered in a vacuum. One Justice Department official said Members of Congress and the White House are regularly consulted on the group’s progress and that the report is likely to contain input from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Though Obama used one of his first executive orders to direct his new administration to close Guantánamo by January 2010, he experienced a backlash from Congress for not having a specific plan for where to send the detainees nor for how to deal with them in either U.S. civil courts or military commissions.

Both the House and Senate bucked Obama’s budget request to include roughly $80 million for the facility’s closure in the supplemental war spending bill that passed both chambers last month. But Democrats in both chambers went even further in that bill and prohibited Obama from ever transferring detainees to the United States or from ever releasing them on U.S. soil.

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