The Democrats' Other Dispute: Whether to Close Gitmo

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Kyodo / Landov

Detainees line up for dawn prayers in a recreation yard at Guantánamo Bay on Sept. 2

As they struggle through a contentious intraparty fight over health care, Democrats are facing another internal battle set for the coming days, this time over a key national-security issue: the fate of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Since even before taking office, the Obama Administration has been trying to figure out how to close the notorious detention facility. In his first week on the job the President declared that Gitmo would be shut down by the end of the year. But fulfilling that promise has proved a major challenge, and Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided over whether to help.

The problem for Obama is that he has nowhere to send almost half of the 228 terror detainees still held by the U.S. at its naval base on the eastern end of Cuba. After a months-long scrub of the evidence against the prisoners, the Administration has decided that while most can be tried or sent to other countries, around 100 can't because the evidence against them is either inadmissible or classified. But these prisoners are too dangerous simply to release. The Administration hopes to be able to move those 100 or so detainees to prisons in the United States but has been blocked from doing so by members of both parties in Congress, who view the prisoners as a threat to their constituents and communities.

The next round of the fight is unfolding now. The Senate is set to pass its funding bill for the Defense Department as early as next week and buried in the bill is a ban on any money to be used to transfer, release or incarcerate any individual who was detained as of Oct. 1, 2009, at Guantánamo to or within the United States or its territories. That is the toughest language Congress has used thus far in the battle, and it would block Obama not only from moving the most dangerous individuals to the U.S. for detention, but from even bringing in 40 or so others for trials in either regular courts or in military commissions.

The House may help Obama out of this dilemma. It passed a bill in July that allows Obama to bring detainees in for trial or detention after the Administration presents a plan for doing so; House negotiators are finalizing similar language in conferences with the Senate this week on a number of non–Defense Department bills that address the issue. A House source says the current hope is that the same language will prevail in the conference for the Defense Department bill. A Senate appropriations aide is less convinced. The Senate won't even consider lifting the ban until it sees the plan, the Senate aide says.

The White House is still struggling to come up with one. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Oct. 27 that it would be "tough" for the Administration to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility by Jan. 22, 2010, the deadline it set for itself on taking office. And the Administration is scrambling to come up with enough details to convince skeptical Senators before the House and Senate bills go to conference. Says one Administration official, "Everyone's thinking this could be the last issue decided in the last conference report" of the legislative year.