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House-Senate panel offers plan for Gitmo detainees

Thursday, October 8, 2009

WASHINGTON -- In a partial victory for President Obama's bid to close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, key congressional negotiators adopted a plan Wednesday to permit terror suspects held there to continue to be transferred into the United States to face trial.

The House-Senate compromise was reached by Democratic negotiators on a $42.8 billion homeland security appropriations bill. It mostly tracks current restrictions put in place in June and is similar to a version backed by Republicans earlier in the year that allowed detainees to be transferred to U.S. soil for trial.

Now, Republicans are pressing for an absolute ban on transfers of Guantanamo detainees into the U.S.

The move sets up a clash with Republicans and, potentially, a difficult vote for dozens of House Democrats, who only last week voted in favor of a GOP plan to block any detainee transfers into the U.S. That vote came on a nonbinding motion, but Wednesday's compromise would carry the force of law for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

Obama's order to close Guantanamo by mid-January has vexed his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, who complain that it was dropped on them without a plan to carry it out.

Republicans have been enthusiastic in their opposition to the plan and clearly feel that public opinion and the politics of Guantanamo are working in their favor. However, prominent members of the party, including last fall's presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, want to see the facility closed as well. At a House Appropriations Committee session in June, the panel's top Republican, Jerry Lewis of California, sought to ensure that detainees could be brought to the U.S. for prosecution.

But amid the uproar over Guantanamo, Democrats have been on the defensive. Just Tuesday, the Senate passed a $626 billion Pentagon budget bill that would ban outright any transfer of accused enemy combatants from Guantanamo to U.S. soil.

And House Democrats were openly exploring the option of a legislative two-step on the underlying homeland security spending bill that would block Republicans from another vote on the detention center.

Supporters of closing Guantanamo say the facility and the detention of suspects who may have been held indefinitely without trial have hurt the United States' reputation across the globe. And, they said, fears of bringing the detainees to the U.S. are exaggerated -- existing federal prisons are more than adequate to safely hold them.

Republicans counter that Guantanamo is an ideal place to hold and prosecute the 223 detainees that remain there. Dozens of those have been approved for release, but U.S. officials fear they will be mistreated or killed if sent to their native countries, and they have yet to be accepted by other countries.

"I see no reason why these terrorists cannot be brought to justice right where they are," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

Administration officials say that the deadline for closing Guantanamo may slip anyway because of difficulties in completing the lengthy review of detainee files and resolving other tough questions.


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