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Guantánamo Debate Has Gone Silent on Capitol Hill

Obama’s Pledge Does Little to Sway Lawmakers

Remember the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba?

It was just a year ago that the question of how to close the detention center sparked a furor in Congress, with Democratic leaders demanding direction from President Barack Obama on the placement of the prison’s inhabitants: suspected terrorists awaiting trial.

But these days, the issue has been all but forgotten on Capitol Hill, where leading Democrats say other issues have taken precedence and Republicans accuse the president of dropping the ball. In the meantime, the administration has yet to make a strong enough case to lawmakers about sending the detainees to an Illinois state prison as a means to closing the facility — an Obama campaign pledge.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged Tuesday that the urgency of the issue has subsided in the face of other pressing matters, namely the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Closing Guantánamo has not been a point of “real, current discussion” in Congress, Hoyer said. “That’s not an issue being discussed very broadly. I think that you’re not going to see it discussed very broadly in the near term.”

A House Democrat who previously helped lead the charge for closing the facility had this to say when asked why he is no longer demanding action on the issue: “I forgot.”

The lawmaker said he was surprised by his and other lawmakers’ lack of attention to the issue given how much weight liberals threw behind trying to close the prison facility last year. “We were all worked up and signing letters and all kinds of stuff,” he said.

Obama originally set his sights on closing Guantánamo within his first year in office. But that year came and went and he still faces Congressional resistance on two fronts: where to house detainees awaiting trial and whether to try them in civilian versus military courts. As these questions remain unanswered, lawmakers in both parties continue to block funding for transferring detainees to locations in the United States, which has kept the fate of the prison in limbo.

Despite hitting a snag with Congress, a White House official said the president “remains committed” to closing Guantánamo because it has been deemed a national security imperative. The official pointed to a May report provided to Congress by the Guantánamo Review Task Force and said that for the first time, lawmakers have an outline for determining what do with each detainee. Specifically, the report calls for transferring 126 detainees to their home countries or to a third country, prosecuting 36 in federal court or a military commission and holding 48 indefinitely under the laws of war.

“We are also working with Congress to acquire and retrofit a Supermax facility in the U.S. for those detainees who cannot be transferred,” the official said. The Justice Department has been eyeing one facility in particular in Illinois, Thomson state prison.

But a Democrat familiar with negotiations on the matter said all parties recognize “what a nightmare this is: The administration doesn’t have a good plan yet.”

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