House Democrats won't give Obama funds to close Gitmo

McClatchy NewspapersMay 4, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's bid for $50 million to move prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was left out of the Democratic-authored emergency war-spending bill unveiled Monday.

Even so, most Democrats remain committed to closing down the military prison, and the issue is likely to be attached to other legislation later this year.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates had sought the funds for the emergency spending bill in case the U.S. wanted to begin building an alternative facility for the detainees soon. He called the funds "a hedge."

He still has influential support for that approach in the Senate, where Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he still backs the funds "as of this moment yes, unless I'm convinced otherwise."

"It's not over yet," he said of the Pentagon's effort.

It's unlikely, though, that the House of Representatives will back any funding for this short-term legislation. When House Democrats released their $94.2 billion spending package Monday for funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and related expenses through the fall, the $50 million for Guantanamo was missing.

Leadership spokesmen explained there were two problems: The Pentagon has no policy in place yet for using the money, and Republicans as well as skeptical Democrats were likely to block the whole spending bill if the Guantanamo funds were included.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., noted that there is no specific closure program yet.

"We will work with President Obama on the funding and policy to achieve our goal of closing Guantanamo Bay," said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made plain the opposition's viewpoint: "Clearly, the administration lacks a plan and a safe alternative for closing Guantanamo," he said in a Senate floor speech.

"The American people want to keep the terrorists at Guantanamo out of their neighborhoods and off of the battlefield," he said. "At this point, the only way we can assure them that neither one of these things will occur is for the administration to keep this secure facility open until it develops a sensible plan for the Congress to evaluate."

Several Democratic senators voiced confidence that Congress ultimately will fund a plan to close Guantanamo. Many lawmakers first want to see a plan for closing Guantanamo and relocating detainees.

"I have no doubt that once the administration decides on a plan, that plan is going to go forward," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee. "I know there are some detainees to be continued in detention, some can be released and some can be repatriated," she said. "We need a plan."

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., an Appropriations Committee member, noted that the fight over the funds could last through the summer.

While the emergency bill would spend money immediately, Congress is also about to start writing its fiscal 2010 spending bills for the 12-month period, which begins Oct. 1.

"I suspect there will be other opportunities to do this," he said.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said that GOP lawmakers would look carefully at any effort to include the funding in future legislation.

"Removing this funding doesn't give the administration a green light to airdrop it into another bill down the road," said Boehner spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier. Though the House Democrats' bill provides money primarily for the two wars, it also includes $2 billion to help fight a possible flu pandemic.

Most of the funds would go to developing and buying vaccines and supplementing federal stockpiles, and $250 million to aid state and local governments to help prepare for and respond to a pandemic.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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