WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats, under pressure from Republicans eager to brand them as ready to release terrorists into America's backyards, prepared Tuesday to strip $80 million for closing the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, out of a war-spending bill.
The money was to be removed until President Barack Obama presents a comprehensive plan for closing the Guantanamo prison and relocating the 240 terrorism suspects held there. Democrats in the House of Representatives did the same thing earlier this month. Obama has made clear that he intends to close the facility by next January, but he made the pledge before his administration devised a plan to try the remaining suspects or deport them to third countries that would continue to detain them.
Nevertheless, the White House appeared unfazed by the Senate's plan. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama would offer more details about Guantanamo's outlook in a speech on Thursday.
"The president and Congress will work together on a timeline for a renewed request for whatever resources are needed," Gibbs told reporters. "The president still believes it is in our national interest to close Guantanamo Bay. That is why he signed the executive order."
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The $91.3 billion war-spending bill is primarily designed to fund U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2009. Spending bills for fiscal 2010 have not yet been passed, so time remains for Guantanamo funds to be added in time to meet Obama's January closure date.
Most Democrats in Congress want to close the facility, but they first need Obama to outline a comprehensive plan for what will happen to the 240 detainees there to insulate them from political attack by Republicans.
Although former Guantanamo inmates likely would be housed at high-security facilities such as the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C., the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., or the "Super Max" prison in Florence, Colo., which already hold violent criminals, Republicans and their talk-show allies have framed Obama's Guantanamo decision as proof that a naive president intends to set dangerous terrorists free in America to roam the countryside.
"Meet Your New Neighbor, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad?" blared the headline of the Senate Republican Policy Committee's executive summary Monday. "If Guantanamo is closed, he will need to go somewhere, including potentially someplace in the United States."
"Guantanamo is the perfect place for these terrorists," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "No one has escaped from Guantanamo. Not one."
He accused Obama of "an arbitrary timeline for closing Guantanamo Bay without a plan to deal with the terrorists incarcerated down there."
McConnell added that the United States "has had difficulty getting European countries (to take the detainees). ... All of these rationales for closing the facility are not making a lot of sense."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saw it differently.
"The decision to close Guantanamo is the right one," Reid said. "Guantanamo makes us less safe. This is neither the time nor the bill to deal with this."
Reid quickly added: "We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States, and I speak for a majority of the Senate."
Reid also made clear that Congress would revisit the issue soon, once Obama presents a plan.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., acknowledged that Guantanamo should be shut down once Obama develops a plan.
"It would be good for the war effort ... to eventually close it," Graham said. "It would help repair damage."
Graham suggested that prisoners could be taken to Islamic countries with rehabilitation facilities.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also urged the White House, with whom he is in discussions on the issue, to "develop a comprehensive strategy."
Meantime, he said, "they've dug themselves a deep hole."
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