Republicans are pushing the hot-button issue of what will be done about Guantanamo’s prisoners—so much so that Democrats signaled Thursday that they will likely drop language sought by the Pentagon to authorize the use of war funds to relocate the inmates.
The political stakes were underlined when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a rare return to his old haunts on the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday to quiz Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the issue. Guantanamo surfaced as well in a closed-door meeting Thursday of the House Appropriations defense panel, which now expects to recommend next week that the relocation language be stricken from a pending $83.4 billion war funding request for Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his testimony, Gates acknowledged that the $50 million requested to relocate the prisoners is largely “a plug” until a better judgment can be made by the Justice Department of how many of the estimated 241 detainees can’t be tried or released to another country. Gates’ own “ball park” estimate was that the number would be somewhere between 50 and 100, but he sidestepped questions as to where the military would move them within the United States.
“I fully expect to have 535 pieces of legislation before this is over saying not in my district, not in my state,” Gates testified.
“I think you can count on it,” McConnell responded.
The politics are ticklish for Democrats since closing Guantanamo has been a long-standing cause on the party left, strongly opposed to the Bush Administration’s anti-terror tactics. In truth, Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, also called for closing Guantanamo in November’s elections. But the issue is more identified with President Barack Obama, who within days of taking office, signed an executive order directing that the facility be closed as soon as practicable and no later than one year.
The appropriations dispute now grows directly out of that decision and includes $30 million for Justice to implement the president’s order and review the status of those detainees held at the facility.
No special authorization is required for the Justice request. By comparison, the Pentagon chose to wrap its $50 million share in language giving the department broad authority to use the funds to relocate detainees, carry out military construction projects “not otherwise authorized by law” and transfer money to federal agencies to help dispose of the prison population.
“We’ll leave the money in and drop the language,” said one Republican lawmaker familiar with the deliberations. “It’s not fully done but that’s where we’re going.”
The full House Appropriations Committee is slated to take up the war funding request May 7 and the $83.4 billion package will almost certainly grow in the course of moving through Congress. The administration itself now wants to add $1.5 billion to deal with the pandemic flu threat, and Democrats in the House are pressing for billions more in military and foreign aid funds.
The defense panel, for example, is expected to recommend an additional $5.3 billion including a $3 billion-plus package to purchase close to 20 transport planes, such as C-130’s and C-17’s. At the same time, allies of the State Department hope to add close to $2.5 billion, in part as a down payment toward foreign aid requests in the 2010 budget. And Democrats and the White House are in a running fight behind-the-scenes over who will control a new $400 million Pakistan counter- insurgency fund championed by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command.
The $50 million to move Guantanamo’s prisoners seems small by comparison--but clearly packs a political wallop.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) focused on the issue immediately in his questioning, and other senators chimed in during the course of Gates appearance alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Please not at Leavenworth,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) “This is a hot topic in my state.”
But McConnell’s comments were most telling. And just as many Democrats see Guantanamo as a legacy of the Bush years, the Kentucky Republican framed the fight as a test now of whether the Obama administration will protect Americans, fearful of the detainees being moved into corrections facilities in their states.
“It’s a very important issue, it deals with public safety,” McConnell told Gates. “As we all know, we haven’t been attacked since 9/11. We like that and we’d like that record to continue.”
For his part, Gates seemed most concerned that lawmakers move quickly with the overall package before Memorial Day, and by mid-May he warned that the Pentagon will run out of coalition support funds to reimburse Pakistan for its assistance in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Pressed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- Cal.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, Gates said that the total US troop commitment to Afghanistan would be 68,000 with the additional forces recently approved by Obama.
“There is a real concern that we just get drawn in and drawn in and we’re into it like we were in Iraq for a substantial period of time,” Feinstein said. But Gates saw no further increase on the horizon.
“I worry a great deal about the foreign military imprint in Afghanistan,” the secretary said. “The Soviets were in there with 110,000 troops, didn’t care about civilian casualties and couldn’t win.”
“With our NATO allies and other partners with the troops the president has approved, we’ll be at about 100,000. So we need to look very carefully at how our strategy is proceeding some months down the road before I would contemplate forwarding a recommendation for additional troops to the president.”
The administration is developing benchmarks to give Congress some better measure of progress down the road. But Clinton put it most bluntly when she said: “You’re not hearing any message other than our recognition that this is hard.”