Senate showdown on Guantánamo


Republicans are headed for a showdown over closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Senate is debating an annual defense policy bill that contains language allowing President Obama to close the facility and transfer detainees to the United States if he can get a plan approved by Congress.

While the bill would still give Congress the final say, some Republicans are fiercely opposed to any move toward shuttering the prison camp, which was opened after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for terrorism suspects captured overseas.

{mosads}Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has filed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would strip out the section allowing for the administration to submit a plan, along with another section that allows for detainees to be temporarily transferred to the United States for medical treatment.

Inhofe could face an uphill battle in getting his changes approved. The Guantánamo provisions garnered broad bipartisan support in the Senate Armed Services Committee, winning adoption in a 19-7 vote. 

But that vote also split Republicans, underscoring the disagreements in the party about what to do with the controversial facility and its detainees.

Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Roger Wicker (Miss.), Mike Rounds (S.D.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska) and Mike Lee (Utah) voted for the Guantánamo plan on the committee. But, Inhofe, as well as Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Ted Cruz (Texas), voted against it.  

Inhofe’s amendments have yet to be scheduled for a vote, and are among hundreds of changes that senators have proposed to the bill. Still, he expressed confidence his proposals will reach the floor next week.

“We talked about the amendments that we had,” Inhofe said, when asked if he had spoken with McCain, who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “He’s encouraging people to get their amendments in, and I feel confident just by the way that it’s going that I’ll be able to get both of my amendments up for consideration.”

Asked about the changes of passing his amendments, Inhofe replied: “We have a large group that’s very interested.”

Even if Inhofe is unsuccessful on the floor, he vowed to take the fight to the conference committee that would negotiate a final bill between the House and Senate.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is running for president, also wants to curb Obama’s ability to relocate detainees, by blocking any transfer to a country that the State Department has issued a travel warning against. A similar measure failed to gain enough support in committee.

McCain, who is up for reelection in 2016 and has long called for the administration to give lawmakers a role in closing Guantánamo Bay, touted the language in the bill as a “bipartisan compromise.”  

“If a plan is approved, the Congress would provide the president with the authority to proceed with closure,” he said. “If the Congress does not approve the plan, nothing would change.”

McCain brushed aside questions about whether he was concerned that his Republican colleagues could try to undermine his proposal by adding additional restrictions.

“They can try to amend it,” he said. “I’m glad to consider anything they would like to propose.”

McCain isn’t just facing pressure from other Republicans, but also the administration, which has threatened to veto the legislation and criticized the Guantánamo provisions as infringing on the president’s powers.

“The Administration strongly objects to provisions of the bill that would impede efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” the White House said in a statement. “While the bill would relax certain of these restrictions if Congress approves a plan to close the facility by joint resolution, this process for congressional approval is unnecessary and overly restrictive.”  

The administration has threatened to veto the annual defense bill in the past, but has never followed through on the threat. Obama is running out of time to carry out his campaign pledge to close the prison, however. 

The 2016 defense bill will last through the end of Obama’s term, meaning that if he allows Congress to place additional restrictions, he would effectively block himself from being able to close the facility.

But, Republicans aren’t the only ones wanting to make changes to the policy bill’s Guantánamo provisions.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, called the provision allowing for a plan to close the facility “an example of bipartisan works at its best,” though he remains critical of other parts of the legislation.

He said that he would work to get a deal with Republicans to remove some of the certification requirements in the bill, which place additional hurdles on the administration before it can transfer detainees out of Guantánamo.

Citing what he said was a “burdensome check list of certifications,” Reed added, “these provisions make it nearly impossible to transfer Guantánamo Detainees overseas.” 

Tags Deb Fischer Jack Reed James Inhofe Jeff Sessions John McCain Kelly Ayotte Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Roger Wicker Ted Cruz Tom Cotton

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