Senate Democrats blocked a Republican amendment Tuesday that would have restricted the transfer of Guantánamo Bay detainees for at least one year.
The Senate voted 43-55 against an amendment from Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). It needed 60 votes to pass. Their amendment would have prevented the administration from transferring any Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States, including for medical reasons, and made it more difficult to send them to foreign countries.
Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) voted with Republicans for the amendment. Hagan and Pryor face a tough reelections in 2014. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.),Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted against the Chambliss-Ayotte amendment.
The amendment from Senate Republicans would have restored transfer restrictions that were included in the Defense bill in previous years, and match the restrictions that were in the House’s legislation that passed in June.
Like the House, Chambliss and Ayotte’s amendment also included a new restriction on transferring detainees to Yemen.
The provision would undercut a key portion of the Obama administration’s new push to close Guantánamo, as President Obama lifted a moratorium on Yemen transfers in May. The ability to transfer detainees to Yemen is important because 56 of the 84 Guantánamo detainees who have been cleared for release are Yemini.
Obama said earlier this year he was making a new push to close the detention facility, which was one of the first pledges he made after taking office in 2009.
“It is time for us to move past the fear that our country somehow lacks the ability to handle Gitmo detainees,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Tuesday. “Gitmo is expensive and inefficient.”
Republicans needed 60 votes to add the restrictions because Levin included provisions in the underlying bill that allow Guantanamo detainees to be transferred to the United States for trial and ease the path to send them to foreign countries.
Despite the amendment's defeat, both Ayotte and Chambliss believed the transfer restrictions would wind up in the final legislation signed into law, because they were included in the House's version. Differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be worked out in conference committee.
“I think the house will hold their ground,” Ayotte told reporters after the vote.
“The house provisions will ultimately prevail,” Chambliss said, adding that he also thought the Yemen restrictions would stay in the conference report.
“We can’t send these guys to Yemen,” he said. “Yemen has proven that they’re not capable of looking after these folks.”
Differences between the House and Senate bill will have to be worked out in conference committee.
Later Tuesday, the Senate also rejected an amendment on a 52-46 vote from Levin and McCain that would have allowed the transfer only after the administration submits a plan to Congress on where the detainees will be housed within the United States.
Levin pointed out that housing detainees within the United States is far less expensive than keeping Gitmo open. The Pentagon estimates that Gitmo facility costs roughly $400 million a year — more than $2 million per detainee. The most expensive federal maximum security prison costs closer to $70,000 per person, per year.
But Chambliss and Ayotte argued that the information from the suspected terrorists is priceless and would be harder to obtain when they enter the U.S. judicial system.
“The cost of detaining individuals who ripped this country apart with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks … is really not a consideration in my mind of whether or not we should house these people for the rest of their lives,” Chambliss said.
Senators are trying to complete work on the "must-pass" bill before Thanksgiving in order to give conferees time to report back. Congress has passed an NDAA bill for 51 straight years.
This article was updated at 6 p.m.