President Obama is running out of time to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.
In an ironic twist, one of his last, best hopes for meeting the promise could rest with the man he defeated in his quest for the White House: Sen. John McCainJohn McCain9 GOP senators Trump must watch out for Flawed Democratic idealism GOP lawmaker: Calling Putin a war criminal could lead to conflict with Russia MORE.
McCain’s Armed Services committee on Thursday passed a defense policy bill that would extend current restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantánamo and restore ones from 2013, but also require the administration to submit a plan to Congress on closing the military detention facility.
The plan would include a case-by-case determination on the disposition of each remaining detainee, and address the legal challenges of bringing them to the United States. The administration would also be asked to spell out what additional legal authorities that would be needed, and how the Pentagon would treat future combatants captured under the laws of war.
If Congress approves the plan, the administration could have an opening to close the facility and achieve the closure of the facility that Congress has fought since Obama took office.
Detainees would have limited rights under the bill if transferred to the U.S., to allay concerns they would have the same rights as American citizens.
McCain on Thursday hailed the proposal as a "bipartisan compromise" and a "workable solution" crafted with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
However, McCain will face stiff opposition from fellow Republicans when the bill hits the Senate floor later this year.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) called the provision his "greatest disappointment" with the bill. Although he voted for the legislation in committee, he said he plans to fight the proposal on the floor.
“Members from many states have voiced concern with housing these terrorists in their states, especially now that ISIL has demonstrated the ability to call up sleeper cells to attack locations here in our country. I don’t want a target in Oklahoma,” he said in a statement.
McCain would need the support of all Democrats, plus six Republicans, in order to stop any attempts to strip the Guantánamo provision from the bill.
Even if the proposal passes the Senate, the plan could hit a brick wall in the House, which passed its defense policy bill on Friday. Their version of the defense bill would not only extend current restrictions on the prison camp for two years, but also add new ones.
The House bill would extend a ban on detainee transfers to the United States, as well as on modifying or constructing any facilities in the U.S. to house the detainees. Just before the bill passed on Friday morning, the House adopted an amendment to extend those restrictions for two years.
The House bill would also restore the more stringent certification requirements that Congress did away with in 2014 and 2015, and block transfers to any “combat zone” — which would limit the administration’s options.
Human rights groups decried the House’s move, saying it would make it nearly impossible to transfer 102 of the 122 remaining detainees from the facility.
“The Guantánamo provisions in the House bill are an attempt to block nearly all transfers out of Guantanamo and to ensure that the prison there remains open forever,” Matt Hawthorne, Policy Director at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said Friday in a statement.
The Senate bill would have also have to win the support of the president — who has threatened to veto the final version of the defense bill if it contains many of the House’s proposals.
"I hope that if we complete ... this proposal about Guantánamo Bay — which I am convinced is a very workable proposal — the president would be then more inclined to sign the bill, since we all know that was the president's commitment when he came to office back in 2008," McCain said Thursday.
With so many hurdles, nervous Democrats are urging the president to transfer as many detainees out of Guantánamo as soon as possible — before Congress imposes tougher restrictions.
However, with 122 detainees remaining and 65 not yet cleared for release, it is likely the White House will need Congress’ help in lifting some restrictions.
McCain’s push on Guantánamo could carry political risk, as conservative groups are gearing up to support a primary challenge against him in 2016.
But McCain might be the only Republican with the clout to take action on president's call to shut the facility.
While serving as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War in 1967, he was shot down, captured and tortured severely by the Vietcong. He spent five years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” Vietnamese prison as a prisoner of war.
McCain has also condemned many of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that some detainees at the prison were subjected to.
Earlier this year, it seemed that McCain had backtracked on his support for closing the facility, after he supported legislation from his Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that would have added more restrictions on transfers.
But McCain said his position has remained the same: that if the president proposed a plan for closing Guantánamo, he would be willing to work with him.
"I've always been in favor of closing Guantánamo because of the image Guantanamo has in the world, whether it's deserved or not deserved," he said.