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U.S. Congress Hands Obama Defeat On Plan To Close Guantanamo

“Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president," said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
WASHINGTON -- In a strong message to the new administration, the U.S. Senate has denied President Barack Obama’s request for funds to close the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, while also voting to block the transfer of the remaining 240 detainees to U.S. prisons.

Just hours after taking the oath of office on January 20, Obama signed an executive order to close the controversial detention center within one year. The practice of holding Guantanamo detainees for years without charge or trial became a symbol to many around the world of America's disregard for the rule of law in its "war on terror."

In April, Obama asked Congress for $80 million, which is how much the administration estimated it would cost to shut down operations and process the remaining prisoners.

But Obama’s plan united Democrats and Republicans in opposition. Both parties found common ground in the belief that before such money can be granted, the White House needs to tell Congress exactly what will happen to the remaining prisoners.

Thirty of the 240 remaining detainees have been approved for release. Some will end up in foreign countries, but which countries is not clear, since many governments have been reluctant to accept them. France and Britain have each taken one.

Administration officials have said that more than 100 may need to be moved to the United States, including 50 to 100 considered too dangerous to release.

At issue is whether they would end up in U.S. prisons, in the midst of American towns and cities.

The prospect has alarmed politicians on the right and the left.

'Pretty Bad Guys'

At a bipartisan news conference on May 20, Obama’s traditional ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, took a hard line on the president’s proposal.

“Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president," Reid said. "We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.”

Republican Senator James Inhofe said closing Guantanamo raises unanswerable questions.

"You have to figure out what to do with some 245 detainees -- most of whom are pretty bad guys," Inhofe said. "Their countries won’t take them back, and there is no place else to put them.”

And his fellow Republican senator, Mitch McConnell, said he doesn’t see a need to close the center at all.

“It really has worked very, very well. No one has escaped from Guantanamo since 9/11. No one," McConnell said. "And we know that communities in America do not want these terrorists.”

The White House has reacted to the Congressional defeat by scheduling a major speech by Obama on May 21, during which he is expected to discuss his plan for Guantanamo Bay and his decision last week to revive the much-criticized military tribunals established by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

'Decisions Aren't Easy'

At a White House briefing on May 20, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama had inherited a complex legal mess from the Bush administration and is trying to work through the issues carefully.

“These decisions aren’t easy; the president understands that," Gibbs said. "That’s the reason why when he signed [the executive order] -- I think on the 22nd of January -- it didn’t close on the 22nd of January. He understood that it was going to take some time to put together and decide a lot of hard issues.

"But we know that the existence of Guantanamo Bay has become a rallying cry for the very same people that seek to do us harm," Gibbs continued. "The president was determined, and is determined, to ensure that that’s no longer a symbol that rallies those that hope to do us harm in the future.”

Also on May 20, the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, told a committee in the House of Representatives that he is concerned that Guantanamo detainees could become terrorism supporters if they are sent to the United States.

"The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing to terrorists, radicalizing others with regard to violent extremism, the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States," he said.

And in a separate development, a federal judge ruled that the government can continue to hold some prisoners at Guantanamo indefinitely without charge.