Road Map: Guantánamo Closure Puts Democrats in a Box

Posted May 11, 2009 at 6:36pm

Are Senate Democrats walking into a Republican trap?

It certainly seems that way, considering they’ve decided to include funding for the closure of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in the chamber’s version of a nearly $97 billion supplemental war spending bill.

[IMGCAP(1)]That would be the same issue that House and Senate Republicans have been hammering President Barack Obama on for the past few weeks. Republicans charge that while Obama wants money to close the facility, the president doesn’t have a plan for what to do with the hundreds of suspected terrorists — including the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — who are housed there.

At first GOP Members may have appeared a little silly for bringing up the issue when the economy is in the toilet. After all, the House supplemental didn’t include any money to help Obama make good on his campaign promise to close the prison. Additionally, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) added language requiring the administration present a plan to Congress by Oct. 1. The full House will likely vote on its bill Thursday.

But on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed that the Senate Appropriations Committee, which plans to consider the bill this afternoon, would give Obama a taste of the $80 million he wants. However, Reid acknowledged that the topic could create drama when the measure comes to the Senate floor next week.

“The only thing that I see that … could cause some concern: The closing of Guantánamo,— Reid said on the Senate floor. As he has done repeatedly, Reid noted last year’s Republican standard-bearer and 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), also supports closing the prison, and that the issue is really about what to do with the prisoners.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) plans to fence off “the money so it wouldn’t be available until the president came up with a plan and there would be no prisoners brought to the United States during this fiscal year,— Reid said.

Barely 30 minutes after Reid’s speech, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) pounced. “Majority Leader Reid has just informed us that the Senate committee would — quote fence the $80 million,’— Kyl said. “But the [Obama] plan could be almost anything … That’s not the kind of assurance that will get the Senate to support this request.—

Indeed, it was unclear as of press time whether Inouye’s language would require Congressional approval for Obama’s prisoner transfer plan once it was crafted.

Kyl noted: “As the Majority Leader said … in his classically understated way, he said, That looks like an issue that could cause a little bit of debate.’ And, Mr. President, I’m sure he is absolutely correct about that.—

What makes the Senate Democrats’ decision to include funding even more perplexing is the fact that Obama has provided virtually no guidance to his Congressional allies. Additionally, Obama has not used his bully pulpit to drive the conversation or provide political cover for the tough Senate floor votes that are sure to ensue.

“The White House completely dropped the ball on this, has given us no cover, and Members don’t know what to say,— one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said.

The aide added, “There’ll be discussion as to how much Democrats want to fight [the GOP amendments], especially in light of the fact that there hasn’t been a whole hell of a lot of help from this administration.—

Republicans have been raising the specter of terrorists being housed in U.S. prisons, which has ginned up passions all over the country — particularly areas with federal maximum-security prisons. It’s a good bet that the GOP will offer proposals that would bar moving prisoners to the United States, or other variations on that theme.

Senate Democratic aides generally shrugged when asked why they seemed intent on giving Republicans a political gift, indicating that the GOP has successfully forced the issue upon them.

“We’re going to have this debate whether we want to or we don’t want to,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “It’s giving the president a chance to make his case and present a plan.—

Meanwhile, House Republicans are looking at their options for making the House’s Thursday supplemental vote as uncomfortable for Democrats as possible, a House GOP leadership aide acknowledged. One option mentioned by Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) would be to try to force a vote on legislation that would prohibit Guantánamo prisoners from being transferred to the United States.

Otherwise, the supplemental should be a breeze for both chambers to pass, given no one wants to be seen as opposing money for the troops and most Members are on board for Obama’s shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. However, the Senate bill is not likely to contain as much disaster funding as the House version, a Senate aide confirmed.

But as the knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide noted, none of that will matter: “The only thing people are going to remember from the supplemental are these votes on Gitmo.—