Politics

Biden's 'Expectation' Is Obama Will Close Gitmo Prison

GOP lawmakers have blocked previous attempts to shutter detention center

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 15. In Sweden on Thursday, Biden issued a renewed vow to close Guantanamo. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Thursday he still expects that the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will close before the Obama administration leaves office in January.

"That is my hope and expectation," Biden said during a press conference in Sweden.

His remarks came several days after President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman revealed that the president still intends to shutter the controversial terrorist detention center before his last day in office on Jan. 20 next year.

[McCain Bill Reignites Debate Over Guantanamo]

“The president is still aiming to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay by the end of his term,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday. He reiterated those intentions on Wednesday. Earnest said there are still 61 prisoners at Guantanamo, including 20 who have been cleared for transfer to other countries.

As Obama has encountered congressional resistance to his desire to close the prison, his administration has been steadily transferring detainees it concludes are not a threat to countries willing to take them.

[Defense Bill Passes After Democrats Last-Ditch Attempts to Change it]

Asked if Obama was considering using his executive powers to close the prison, a White House official said the administration still preferred a legislative approach. 

"We want to see the detention facility at Guantanamo closed, and we have submitted a plan to Congress for doing so," the official said. "Our priority remains working with Congress to get this done."

On Thursday, Earnest told reporters he could not map out how Obama will meet his goal, saying administration officials will do their best to close the prison.

The number of Guantanamo detainees in January fell below 100 for the first time since the detention camp opened more than a dozen years ago.

The White House’s renewed — and cryptic — utterances about shuttering the prison will again draw the ire of congressional Republicans, who have time and again passed bills containing provisions aimed at blocking Obama from his desired goal.

For instance, a fiscal 2016 Pentagon policy bill passed last November prohibits the use of government funds to transfer any Guantanamo detainee to the United States or to build facilities to hold them.

[White House: Guantanamo Closure Remains Obama Priority]

And the House has passed its version of a fiscal 2017 Pentagon measure that, if included in the final bill, would mandate that no prisoner may leave the detention facility. That same bill would prevent any money being spent to even study U.S. sites that might serve as alternatives to house Guantanamo detainees.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was among the Republicans who promptly reacted to Biden's comments. He made his views clear on Twitter with a one-word tweet: "Nope."

And GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who has been a leading critic of shuttering the detention center and led an effort to force the Pentagon to release details about remaining detainees, said Thursday that transferring prisoners to the mainland would go against the intent of Congress.

"Contrary to what this administration has repeatedly asserted, emptying and closing Guantanamo Bay would make our country less safe — and if they have to transfer these dangerous terrorists to the United States in order to empty the facility, that would be a blatant and serious violation of the plain language of the law," the New Hampshire senator said.

[Gitmo Executive Action Would Further Muddle Obama Legacy]

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told Roll Call last year that should Obama use an executive order to close the prison, it would effectively kill the rest of his legislative agenda. Republicans would be so angry, they likely would table even the things on which they might find common ground with Obama after the election, including his proposed trade deal with Asian countries, the Mississippi Republican said.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Obama's first-term secretary of State, supports closing Guantanamo. Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, wants to keep it open, saying he would "load it up with bad dudes" and even try Americans accused of terrorism charges there.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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