Democrats on Capitol Hill Rebel Against President Obama's Guantanamo Bay Plan

Lawmakers want Obama to present a plan on how he plans to close detainee center.

May 20, 2009, 10:47 AM

May 20, 2009— -- The U.S. Senate today voted overwhelmingly to block funding to shut down the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dealing another blow to one of President Obama's signature national security issues.

In a 90-6 vote, the Senate followed in the footsteps of the House of Representatives and passed an amendment deleting $80 million in funds from a war funding bill earmarked to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Republicans have been raising alarm bells for weeks about the prospect of Obama's planned Guantanamo closure.

Where will the detainees go, they've asked over and over. Will they be tried in the United States? And will former detainees, if cleared of the charges against them, be walking the U.S. streets?

Democrats have answered by rejecting Obama's request for money to start the base closure.

"Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States," declared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a press conference Tuesday after meeting with other Democratic senators.

Obama had requested the $80 million from the $91 billion war funding bill as part of his promise to close the Guantanamo base by January 2010.

If he wants to meet his January pledge, the president will now have to ask for the money later this year.

There are 240 detainees currently housed at Guantanamo Bay. Of those, 80 are awaiting trial, two have been released in Europe in recent months, and 130 are in some sort of legal limbo.

One of those detainees, top al Qaeda suspect Ahmed Ghailani, will be tried in New York City, an administration source told ABC News.

Ghailani, who has been in custody since 2004 and has been at Guantanamo since 2006, was indicted in federal court in New York City for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. Those attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

In passing the amendment to remove the $80 million from the war funding bill needed to close the base, the Senate communicated that Obama must first present a plan for how he plans to close the detainee center and what he plans to do with the detainees housed there.

"The U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans don't want terrorists released in the United States," said Reid, although he maintains, as does Obama, that closing Guantanamo Bay is the right thing to do.

Reid became exasperated with reporters when pressed to connect the dots between closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and not bringing detainees to U.S. shores.

"If terrorists are released in the United States, part of what we don't want is for them be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States," Reid said.

Republican Furor Over Gitmo Closure

Reid's words echo the talking points of Republicans, particularly Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has pressured Democrats for weeks on Guantanamo Bay.

But while Reid ultimately wants to see the base closed, Republicans like McConnell see it as the perfect place to keep suspected terror detainees, many of whom have now been housed in Cuba for seven years.

"In my view, these men are exactly where they belong: locked up in a safe and secure prison, and isolated many miles away from the American people," McConnell said on the Senate floor today.

"Guantanamo is a secure. state-of-the-art facility. It's got courtrooms for military commissions. Everyone who visits is impressed with it," he said. "Even the administration acknowledges that Guantanamo is humane and well-run. Americans want these men kept out of their backyards and off the battlefield. Guantanamo guarantees it."

FBI Director Robert Mueller fueled the concerns sparked by Republicans.

In testimony before a House panel today, Mueller said he could not get into specific discussions about releasing Guantanamo detainees into the United States, but he told the panel, "The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalizing others. ... All of those are concerns."

"There is a potential for radicalization in a number of ways, whether it be for gang activity, for terrorist groups, for other extremists," he said.

Mueller used an analogy with gangs that pose threats in U.S. prisons and are able to recruit from within the prisons, saying, "There are individuals in our prisons today who operate gangs inside our prisons."

The Senate will also consider two Republican amendments with more far-reaching consequences.

First is a proposal by McConnell that would require a threat assessment on any detainee before he is released from Guantanamo Bay or moved anywhere, not just the United States. The assessment would address the prospects for recidivism -- whether the detainee would return to the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Second is a proposal from Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe that would explicitly ban the administration from using any money in this bill, or past bills, to move Gitmo detainees to the United States.

Both of these measures stand a good chance of passing and, therefore, putting the Senate on record in opposition an issue that tops Obama's national security agenda.

Obama Reinstates Military Tribunals

Obama seemed to answer some of the concern among his party members about the detainees when he announced last week that he would re-instate a system of military tribunals originally enacted by President Bush to try detainees by a military court.

While Obama promised to retool the tribunals and account for more rights for the detainees undergoing trial, many civil libertarians criticized the move.

Lately, some of the loudest voices against moving detainees to the United States have been Democrats. Virginia Sen. Jim Webb -- whose state would likely host detainees if they were to be tried in the American criminal justice system instead of on Cuba -- said Sunday on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" that he would not support bringing detainees stateside.

"I think Guantanamo has become the great Rorschach test of how we feel about international terrorism. We should at the right time close Guantanamo, but I don't think that it should be closed in terms of transferring people here," he said.

Other Democrats have stuck up for Obama and argue that the American prison and judicial systems are more than capable of handling detainees. International terrorists like Zacharias Moussoaui, the so-called 20th hijacker of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, along with people convicted of the 1993 attacks are in U.S. prisons already.

"If we can safely hold these individuals, I believe we can safely hold any Guantanamo detainees who need to be held," said Durbin on the Senate floor. "I should note, no prisoner has ever escaped in the United States, period. Republicans also claim the administration wants to release terrorists in our communities, some kind of work release, walking around situation for terrorists. What an incredible charge, and patently false. President Obama has made clear that Guantanamo will be closed in a manner consistent with our national security."

ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.

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