Democrats Rethink Paying for Gitmo Closure

Posted May 13, 2009 at 5:17pm

Senate Democrats may be having second thoughts about giving President Barack Obama money to close down the military prison and terrorism detainee center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated Wednesday afternoon that Democratic leaders were not yet settled on including $50 million for the prison’s closure in the upcoming $97 billion supplemental war spending bill. Asked whether there was any question about the Senate Appropriations Committee including the funds at their markup Thursday, Reid said, “Sure, there’s a question.—

Though Obama has promised to close the prison by the end of the year, he has not laid out a plan for where to relocate the hundreds of suspected terrorists who are housed there, including the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Many Members — particularly those with maximum security federal prisons in their states — worry about a public backlash if the detainees are sent their areas, and Republicans have started a message war over the dangers of sending Guantánamo prisoners to the United States.

One senior Senate Democratic aide acknowledged that the majority might not have the votes to retain the funding once the bill hits the Senate floor next week.

“Many members of the caucus don’t want to walk the plank on this,— said the aide.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) — who has vehemently objected to sending any Guantánamo prisoners to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan. — said he may offer an amendment to strike the funding from the bill on the floor. Other GOP amendments to prohibit the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. are also expected.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who has a federal “Supermax— prison in Terre Haute, said he is a “possible— vote for any GOP-offered amendment to strip the funding from the bill.

“Clearly if they’re going to remove them from [Guantánamo], then I’d like to hear the plan,— Bayh said.

Other Democrats with federal prisons in their states were reluctant to answer whether they would support or oppose funding the prison’s closing at this time, but most said they wanted to see what Obama will propose to do with the prisoners.

“I’ll really reserve comment until I see the plan. … We’re waiting to see what they’re going to propose,— Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said.

Similarly, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), whose state has three maximum security prisons, said he’ll be “watching it very carefully.—

Still, many Democrats continue to support not just the closing of the prison, but also the funding of its closure in the supplemental. Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Wednesday that he believes it is “reasonable to think that there’ll be enough states or other countries that are willing to take— the prisoners from Guantánamo.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also took to the Senate floor Wednesday to defend Obama and criticize the GOP’s attacks on the president’s decision to close the facility.

“It’s interesting to note there were no complaints from the Republican side of the aisle when President Bush said that he wanted to close Guantanamo,— Durbin said. “The Republican leader of the Senate did not come down to the floor to object when his president made the suggestion. He started making a regular trip to the floor to object when the suggestion was made by President Obama.—

If the funding is included in Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye’s (D-Hawaii) bill, the $50 million will not come without strings attached. The language is expected to require Obama to submit his plan before the money can be tapped, but none of the $50 million would be available for transporting prisoners to the United States.