Democrats Chafe Under Gitmo Delays

Posted October 2, 2009 at 7:02pm

White House delays in producing a plan for transferring detainees out of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are starting to wear on House Democrats, who are showing increasing disarray over how to handle the issue.

House Democratic leaders have been staying quiet on the issue as President Barack Obama crafts a plan to close the beleaguered facility in January. But continued delays by the administration could have consequences for vulnerable Democrats, some of whom are growing agitated as the clock keeps ticking.

“There is some concern just politically about this,— one senior Democratic aide said. The more time that goes by without a plan from Obama, the aide said, the more likely Republicans will engage in “scaremongering— and attack Democrats for “inviting terrorists into our backyard.—

The intraparty fissures over how to proceed with Guantánamo came into focus Thursday, when 88 Democrats voted with all but one Republican to instruct conferees on the Homeland Security appropriations bill to bar detainees from being housed in U.S. prisons. The motion also directed conferees to prevent the release of controversial photographs of incidents of detainee abuse.

While the vote was on a nonbinding measure, it put on full display how scattered Democrats are on the issue of what to do with Guantánamo detainees without direction from the White House. Even one of the Democratic conferees on the Homeland Security spending bill, Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), split from his colleagues and voted for the GOP-backed restrictions.

The National Republican Congressional Committee seized on the vote, sending out press releases attacking freshman Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) and others for rolling out “the red carpet for terror suspects— with their vote against the motion.

Democratic leaders are hearing from Members on both sides of the issue, the senior aide said. Some are complaining about the need for a plan, the aide said, while “others say, ‘We can do this safely, we’ve done it before. It shouldn’t be such a worry.’—

Administration officials in June were due to send a report to Congress outlining long-term policies for the detainees, but those recommendations were delayed until January — the same month Obama has pledged to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Plans for the report were part of an executive order Obama signed on his first full day in office.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on where things stand with Obama’s plan and on the effect delays may be having on Congressional Democrats.

House Democratic leaders were expecting Republicans to bring forward a Guantánamo-related measure Thursday and weren’t concerned about a split vote, the senior aide said: “It’s hard to control people on these kinds of things. We didn’t whip it.—

The real action comes when Homeland Security conferees vote on whether to include the Guantánamo language in the final bill. For now, however, the next conference meeting has yet to be scheduled. A committee spokesman dismissed the idea that the Guantánamo vote caused the cancellation of a Thursday conference meeting.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said Democrats are “all over the lot on this issue— and are clearly frustrated with Obama.

“You’ve got to believe they are,— said Rogers, who brought forward last week’s Guantánamo motion after conferring with Republican leaders. Obama “is the biggest pusher of closing down Gitmo and moving some of the prisoners here. So this [vote] flew right in the face of that.—

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) downplayed any intraparty agitating over the issue.

“There’s no divide in the Democratic Party on this issue,— Clyburn said. “The whole issue of the defense of the nation, that’s an issue that we deal with a whole lot. We have not taken a position on Gitmo.—

When asked whether he is concerned by the pace of Obama’s deliberations, Clyburn said, “I have no frustrations. Yet.—

But Rogers said the House vote was significant because “it’s the first time we’ve had that vote, so that we now know what the sentiment is. It also reflects the countryside worried about bringing these people over here.— He described Guantánamo detainees as “a mean bunch of people who are determined to kill all of us.—

The Kentucky Republican was among several in his party voicing doubts that Obama will be able to close the Guantánamo facility by January.

“What are they going to do with all those prisoners? They can’t bring them here,— Rogers said. “They’ve exhausted the world trying to get rid of them and there’s still 270-odd left, the worst of the worst.—

“I was telling people back in my district when they were talking about closing it in January, ‘I guarantee you next January, it will not be closed,’— said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee. “It’s not an easy thing to do.—

Former President George W. Bush “would have closed it if it was an easy thing to do,— the Alabama Republican added.

Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, continue to argue against restricting Obama’s ability to transfer prisoners to U.S. prisons, which they say are fully capable of housing dangerous criminals.

“Our prisons keep us safe from the likes of Charles Manson; David Berkowitz, the ‘Son of Sam’ killer; the World Trade Center bombers; and the Kenyan Embassy bombers, whom I detest because they killed several friends of mine,— Obey said last week.

But even Obey was critical of how Obama has followed through on his intention to close the Guantánamo facility.

“The administration did not demonstrate a high degree of skill in implementing that decision. They had a credible goal, but they clearly had not thought through how to get there,— the Wisconsin Democrat said.