WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly backed a $607 billion defence bill that would bar President Barack Obama from moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. prisons, setting up a showdown with Congress over his 2008 campaign pledge to close the Cuban facility.
The long-running dispute heated up on Capitol Hill on Thursday just hours after the House passed the bill, 370-58, and sent it to the Senate, which plans a vote early next week. Three Republican senators from Kansas, Colorado and South Carolina – states where the administration has explored housing Guantanamo terror suspects – held a news conference to make it clear they will fight to prevent moving them to U.S. soil.
Closing the prison was a priority of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and he promised during his first days in office that he would eventually shutter the facility, which he argues is costly and gives extremists a recruiting tool.
The administration is finalizing a plan on closing the prison, which houses 112 detainees, but hasn’t said when it will share it with Congress.
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Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have blocked Obama’s effort for years.
Sen. Pat Roberts on Wednesday placed a hold on Obama’s nominee to be the next Army secretary to prevent the president from trying to bypass Congress by using his executive authorities to close the prison.
“This administration has continually gone around the Congress and tried to figure out which button to push to irritate Congress the most,” said Roberts, whose state includes Fort Leavenworth. “Well he sure as hell has pushed my button.
“As I have said for years and years, we are not going to have terrorists from Gitmo come to Fort Leavenworth, the intellectual centre of the Army, or any other location in the United States.”
Roberts accused Obama of executive “overreach” and said he would work to continue to withhold congressional funds to move detainees to the United States, which currently is against the law.
As he spoke, Roberts got visibly angry. “Why do we even have a Congress,” he shouted, “if the president can issue an executive order on anything and, in this particular case, endanger our national security?”
Sen. Tim Scott, who visited Guantanamo two weeks ago, said the military prison is a perfect site because it’s hours away from Havana and is surrounded by mountains, water and desert.
“To consider a domestic location is, in my opinion, the worst decision for America’s national security,” said Scott, whose state is home to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, another prospective site for detainees.
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Sen. Cory Gardner said the facility being considered to house Guantanamo detainees in his state is a closed state prison that would cost millions to retrofit. He said the administration has violated current law that bans taxpayer money from being used to “assist in the transfer” of detainees.
“It’s hard for me to believe that you can send a team of experts to analyze where you’re going to send detainees to fulfil a campaign promise if you haven’t spent any money,” he said.
Roberts said the White House plan has not yet been presented in any detail to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At a separate news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she is upset that the Republicans have prevented Obama from closing Guantanamo, “which he set out to do, and which he had a plan to do – and he does have a plan to do now.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest hinted that the president might use his executive authority to close the prison. Obama wants to work with Congress to close Guantanamo, but “if Congress continues to refuse,” the president will explore all other options, Earnest said.
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When asked again Thursday about the prospect of executive action to shut the prison, Earnest said the administration continues to believe that Congress should remove the obstacles it has imposed to closing it. He said that closing the prison makes national security and fiscal sense because spending to hold prisoners at Guantanamo far exceeds what the U.S. spends to detain and incarcerate terrorists on U.S. soil.
Earnest said there was no veto threat but that the president still must review the bill that passed on Thursday.
Obama vetoed the original defence policy bill over a larger spending issue. But that dispute was resolved, and Obama on Monday signed a bipartisan budget bill that avoids a catastrophic U.S. default and puts off the next round of fighting over federal spending and debt until after next year’s presidential and congressional elections.