President Obama’s renewed push close the Guantánamo Bay prison is hitting a wall of resistance in Congress.
Obama announced to great fanfare last month that he was restarting the effort to close the prison by transferring detainees cleared for release. He followed up this week by appointing a new envoy at the State Department to focus on the effort.
But Congress moved quickly to thwart Obama’s plans. The House voted against lifting restrictions on moving detainees to the United States and approved an amendment that prevents the president from using funds to return some detainees to Yemen.
“It’s a very big problem, I think a lot of [lawmakers] would like to not have to think about it,” said Andrea Prasow, communications director for Human Rights Watch. “I find it incredibly depressing that’s the state of our politics right now.”
Guantánamo became a campaign issue in 2010 after Obama first attempted to close the detention facility and hold a trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City.
Smith said Republicans have been successful at tying support of Guantánamo with being tough on terror, which he said was false.
“The Republicans have done a pretty masterful job of using scare tactics,” Smith said.
“Republicans have equated the two and said if you’re for closing Guantánamo you don’t take the threat [of terrorism] seriously. I don’t think that’s a fair equation, but that’s what they’ve put out there, and that’s what makes some people nervous.”
Smith, who has been among the most vocal Democrats in favor of closing the prison, said that Obama wouldn’t be successful until he gets past the “brick wall” of opposition in Congress.
Obama made closing the prison a major part of his national security address last month, and it’s a key part of his effort to wind down the “war on terror.” He reiterated his commitment to shuttering Guantanamo during a speech this week at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Dixon Osburn, director of law and security at Human Rights First, said that Obama should start transferring cleared detainees in order to signal to skittish lawmakers he is committed to closing the facility.
The administration has a waiver process to transfer cleared detainees to third countries so long as it certifies that it’s not a national security risk. Of the 166 detainees left at the facility, 86 have been cleared for release.
“He really does need to act now or the window of opportunity he’s created could close,” Osburn said. “After the 2014 election, the president won’t know what Senate or House will be there and whether or not be more or even less receptive to his closing Guantanamo.”
The Senate has provided opponents of Guantánamo with some reason for hope, as the Senate Armed Services Committee included a loosening of detainee transfer restrictions in its Defense authorization bill.
The committee said that the Guantánamo provisions were not debated during the closed mark-up, however, and they would instead be taken up when the bill goes to the floor.
“The problem with the current law is that it’s so restrictive that the president’s been unable to do what I think most people think he should do, at least get most people out of Guantánamo,” said Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl Levin'Nuclear option' for Supreme Court nominees will damage Senate McCain's Supreme Court strategy leads to nuclear Senate The Fed and a return to banking simplicity MORE (D-Mich.).
Asked if some Democrats are hesitant to take up the issue, Levin said: “There may be a few, but I also think most Democrats really believe that we’ve got to find a solution.”
Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillDem senator: Trump's Cabinet filled with 'Goldman, generals and gazillionaires' McCaskill calls Russian meddling in elections 'a form of warfare' Senators say cyberattacks 'have cut to the heart of our free society' MORE (D-Mo.) said that other issues relating to terrorism — like the Boston bombing and NSA surveillance activities — are now more in the public eye than Guantánamo.
“I think we’ve got a lot of discussions going on now about what it takes to keep our country safe, and I don’t think everyone’s concerns are frankly as much about closing Guantanamo,” she said.
A key voice in the debate will be Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSenators say cyberattacks 'have cut to the heart of our free society' Sunday shows preview: Trump sits down with Fox McCain: Tillerson ties to Putin a 'matter of concern' MORE (R-Ariz.), who visited the detention facility last week with Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDem senator seeks more time for 'due diligence' on Sessions nomination Senate sets date for hearings on Sessions's attorney general nomination Senators move to protect 'Dreamers' MORE (D-Calif.) and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonoughDenis McDonoughThe Hill's 12:30 Report Obama, Trump display unity in White House meeting Dark days for Obama’s White House MORE. Afterward, the three issued a joint statement saying they were committing to closing it down.
But McCain will have an uphill battle with many of his GOP colleagues.
At a press conference last month after Obama’s national security speech, there was an open divide between McCain and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamStudent debt is America's most pressing economic problem Senators say cyberattacks 'have cut to the heart of our free society' Democrats unnerved by Trump's reliance on generals MORE (R-S.C.) and Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteDem senator tears up in farewell speech Juan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama Battle brews over Trump’s foreign policy MORE (R-N.H.) and Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE (R-Ga.).
They convened the press conference out of opposition to moving detainees to Yemen, but they themselves were opposed over what should happen to Guantánamo.
McCain and Graham said they wanted to work with Obama, while Ayotte and Chambliss said the facility should stay open.