Guantánamo Bay fight awaits Pentagon pick

President Obama’s push to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay is likely to become a flashpoint as he seeks to confirm a replacement for outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Senators plan 22 resolutions to block Saudi arms sale | Trump defends transgender military plan | Trump, lawmakers prep to mark D-Day anniversary The Hill's Morning Report - Mueller finally speaks. What now? Swalwell says he will convene a bipartisan 'blended cabinet' if elected president MORE.

Obama is seeking to close the detention center before leaving office, which would fulfill a promise he made during his first White House run in 2008.

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But with Republicans and some Democrats opposed to releasing the detainees or bringing them to U.S. prisons, the administration has considered closing the facility through executive action, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The White House questioned the Journal report, but did not explicitly deny that the administration is considering bringing detainees to the U.S.

Under the law, the Defense secretary must personally sign off on any release or transfer of detainees from the Cuba facility for terrorism suspects.

While Hagel last week approved the transfer of five Guantánamo detainees, he has expressed reluctance about approving detainee transfers, noting that he had to personally certify that prisoners released would not return to the battlefield.

"I'm taking my time, I owe that to the American people, I owe that to the president, to assure that any decision I make is, in my own mind, and by the standards that Congress gave me, that I, in fact, can certify and notify that this is the responsible thing to do," Hagel told reporters on May 29. 

There are reportedly 142 detainees left at the Cuba facility.

Hagel’s reluctance on approving the transfers appeared to be a source of frustration within the administration.  

"The president would absolutely like to see more progress in our efforts to close Guantanamo," Obama’s counterterrorism adviser told The Associated Press in October. "He wants it closed. He's pushing his own team very hard, raising it weekly with me, with Secretary Hagel, with Secretary [of State John] Kerry." 

With Hagel now headed for the exits, Obama could be looking for a new Defense secretary who will be a strong ally on Guantánamo — and be willing to charge into the political battle that closing the prison would entail.

Senate Republicans have vowed to fight any unilateral moves on Guantánamo, and are likely to have some hard questions for Obama’s nominee about what he or she will support when it comes to detainee transfers.

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race New Hampshire senator to ask 2020 Dems to back repeal of state residency law Schultz recruiting GOP insiders ahead of possible 2020 bid MORE (R-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last month sent a letter to the president asking him to suspend any transfers from Guantánamo amid reports that former detainees had joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“In the wake of last week’s report that as many as 30 former Guantanamo detainees are fighting with ISIS, I called for the president to suspend detainee transfers until a thorough review can be conducted to determine what steps are necessary to ensure that detainees do not reengage in the fight against us, and I renew my call today," she said.