WASHINGTON – In a rare, bipartisan defeat for President Barack Obama, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open for the foreseeable future and forbid the transfer of any detainees to facilities in the United States.
Democrats lined up with Republicans in the 90-6 vote that came on the heels of a similar move a week ago in the House, underscoring widespread apprehension among Obama’s congressional allies over voters’ strong feelings about bringing detainees to the U.S. from the prison in Cuba.
The president readied a speech for this morning on the U.S. fight against terrorism, at a time when liberals have chafed at some of his decisions.
In spite of lawmakers’ concerns, the Obama administration plans to send a top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay to New York to stand trial for the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, an administration official said Wednesday. The suspect, Ahmed Ghailani, would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
Obama has vowed to close the prison by January 2010, and the Senate’s vote was not the final word on the matter. It will be next month at the earliest before Congress completes work on the legislation, giving the White House time to pursue a compromise that would allow the president to fulfill his pledge.
But Obama’s maneuvering room was further constrained during the day when FBI Director Robert Mueller told a congressional panel that he had concerns about bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to prisons in the United States. Among the risks is “the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States,” said Mueller, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001 and is serving a 10-year fixed term in office.
Additionally, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled this week that some prisoners – but not all – can be held indefinitely at Guantanamo without being charged, thus increasing the pressure on the administration to develop a plan for the men held there.
After the Senate vote, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “The president understands that his most important job is to keep the American people safe and that he is not going to make any decision or any judgment that imperils the safety of the American people.”
He added that Obama has not yet decided where some of the detainees will be sent. A presidential commission is studying the issue.
There was no suspense in the moments leading to the Senate vote, although Democrats maneuvered to take political credit for denying Obama funds he sought to close the prison. They hoped to negate weeks of Republican warnings about the danger involved.
All six opponents of the proposal were Democrats: Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
The administration asked for $80 million to close the facility. Obama promised repeatedly as a presidential candidate to shut down the prison, calling it a blot on the international image of the United States.
Even in voting to deny him the funds, Obama’s Democratic allies insisted the president was fundamentally correct.
“Guantanamo is used by al-Qaida as a symbol of American abuse of Muslims and is fanning the flames of anti-Americanism around the world,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California.
The lopsided vote was a victory for the Senate Republicans, who have recently turned their attention to Obama’s policies on foreign policy and terrorism after failing to make headway in criticizing his economic program.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has delivered numerous speeches in recent weeks raising pointed questions about Obama’s plans to close the prison without first explaining where the men held there would be sent. “For months, we have been saying what Senate Democrats now acknowledge: that because the administration has no plan for what to do with the 240 detainees at Guantanamo, it would be irresponsible and dangerous for the Senate to appropriate the money to close it,” McConnell said shortly before the vote.
The Republican leader also won approval for a separate terror-related provision later in the day. On a vote of 92-3, the Senate agreed to require the administration, before releasing any detainee, to inform Congress of the likelihood that he would return to terrorism. It also would report on any effort al-Qaida may be making to recruit detainees once they’re released from U.S. custody.