House Republicans are rallying around a measure that would prevent President Barack Obama from releasing any more detainees from Guantanamo Bay until Congress can come up with a new defense policy bill.
The House on Thursday passed the bill on a 244 to 174 vote, but even some leading Republican House members acknowledge privately that it stands almost no chance of being approved by the Senate. The White House has also threatened to veto the bill.
Still, the House’s vote represents a final showdown in the eight-year struggle between Republicans and President Barack Obama, who have been fiercely at odds over the future of the detention facility housing suspected terrorists that Obama has vowed to close.
Congress — with the help of both Democrats and Republicans — has successfully kept Obama from shuttering the Guantanamo Bay prison camp through a series of maneuvers in annual defense policy and funding bills. But the president has still maintained the right to transfer detainees to third-party countries.
In August, the president approved the largest single transfer of detainees of his administration— 15, sent to the United Arab Emirates — leaving the population at 61.
Republicans see such moves as an attempt to shutter Guantanamo by attrition, until the ranks of detainee ranks are so low it makes no more sense to keep the facility open. The bill the House passed Thursday highlights this issue that has passionately divided Americans, just in time for the home stretch of an election season.
But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), argues that the measure is timely because of increasing incidences of recidivism. A new report from the Director of National Intelligence released Wednesday showed that two more detainees released from Guantanamo Bay had reengaged in terrorist activity.
Walorski faults the administration for trusting former Guantanamo detainees to third-party countries that “don’t have the facilities, don’t have the wherewithal to keep these people,” she said in an interview.
“We wouldn’t be seeing 30 percent recidivism if we had true partners in this cause and in these countries,” Walorski said.
Her solution is to put a stop to transfers until either Congress passes a defense policy bill or the first day of the new presidential administration on Jan. 21, 2017 — whichever comes sooner.
Walorski argued Tuesday that Obama’s detainee transfer policy “is more about the president running out of time to fulfill his campaign promise than about the national security interest of the United States,” adding that it “puts Americans at risk.”
But Democrats see Walorski’s bill as a thinly veiled attempt to facedown Obama in the last months of his presidency.
“For eight years, the general view here, from some of us, is that the intention was to obstruct this president from doing whatever he attempted to do,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “Now we come to the end, and you have in many respects succeeded … that said, I think that you get my drift that this ain’t going nowhere.
“The young man will have his legacy,” Hastings continued, “and most of it will include the negativity that he was presented with and the lack of dignity that was allowed, in many respects, to him as president of the United States.”
The specifics of Walorski’s bill echo a provision that the House voted to include in their version of the annual defense policy bill in June. That bill is currently being negotiated with the Senate’s version, which does not have a similar provision. Both bills would, however, prevent the president from shuttering the Guantanamo Bay facility.
Of the 61 detainees left at Guantanamo, approximately 16 of them have been cleared for transfer to other countries, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Tuesday.
“Many of these people have been cleared for transfer for years,” Smith said. “This bill would block the ability to do that between now and probably the end of his presidency … I just don’t see why this president should have that power taken away from him.”
Many Republicans have clamored for a ban against the release of any more detainees for fear that Obama is trying to close the facility by fiat, by depleting it of inmates. They warn that could have dangerous consequences if the most hardened suspected terrorists are released, as they could return to terrorist activities.
During a House Rules Committee meeting Tuesday, chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said he supported the bill because “I would hate to look up and find that KSM is gone,” referring to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Democrats have recoiled at such accusations, pointing out the administration has no intention of releasing the so-called worst detainees. Most Democrats argue that keeping inmates at Guantanamo without cause only fuels terrorist propaganda.
Democrats also counter Republican warnings about recidivism among released detainees with numbers indicating most who have gone “back to the fight” were released during George W. Bush’s administration.