Obama's rare win in campaign to close Guantanamo faces fierce resistance in Congress

Donna Cassata / The Associated Press
May 23, 2014 01:35 PM

FILE - In this April 1, 2014, file photo, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Barack Obama scored a rare win in his 5-year-old campaign to close the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a Senate panel approved giving him the authority to transfer terror suspects to the United States if Congress signs off on a comprehensive plan to shutter the facility. Levin hailed the defense bill provision as a significant change in the long standoff between the Obama administration and bipartisan congressional opponents over the post-Sept. 11 prison for terror suspects. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama scored a rare win in his 5-year-old campaign to close the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a Senate panel approved giving him the authority to transfer terror suspects to the United States if Congress signs off on a comprehensive plan to shutter the facility.

It's not a done deal, however, as top Senate Republicans vowed on Friday to do all they can to keep the Guantanamo facility open and leave the 154 detainees incarcerated.

The Senate Armed Services Committee wrapped up a defence bill Thursday that would authorize the transfer of terror suspects to U.S. soil "for detention, trial and incarceration, subject to stringent security measures and legal protections, once the president has submitted a plan to Congress for closing Guantanamo and Congress has had an opportunity to vote to disapprove that plan under expedited procedures."

The bill also authorizes the temporary transfer of detainees to a U.S. medical facility operated by the Defence Department "to prevent death or significant imminent harm."

Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, hailed the defence bill provision as a significant change in the long standoff between the Obama administration and bipartisan congressional opponents over the post-Sept. 11 prison for terror suspects.

Levin said the bill has "created a path to close Guantanamo."

The effort still faces resistance from Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have repeatedly and successfully fought White House efforts to move detainees to U.S. soil.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, voted for the overall defence bill but is determined to work with his allies in the House to scuttle the provision. Inhofe maintains that Guantanamo is the only option to house terror suspects.

If Obama offers a plan, "I'm hoping that anything that comes can be slow-walked till he's out of office," Inhofe said in an interview Friday.

Another member of the committee, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, said the administration has failed to produce a coherent policy on detention and interrogation, and she promised to lead the Senate effort to keep Guantanamo operating.

"Bringing members of al-Qaida and its affiliates to our homeland and telling them they have a right to remain silent defies common sense, represents a serious national security risk, and prevents us from collecting the intelligence we need to prevent future terrorist attacks and save American lives," Ayotte said in a statement.

Ayotte prevailed in adding another provision to the defence bill — a one-year moratorium on transferring detainees from Guantanamo to Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is considered one of the terror group's most dangerous off-shoot worldwide.

Efforts in committee to give the president unfettered authority to close Guantanamo attracted unusual conditions. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, won approval for establishing a process in which any administration plan would be subject to a joint resolution of disapproval from both houses of Congress.

The president could veto the resolution, thus requiring a two-thirds majority to override the move.

But even before that, the full Senate must pass the defence bill and that version has to be reconciled with the House legislation, which passed on Thursday. The House bill prohibits any transfer of terror suspects to the United States.

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