House Republicans are vowing to hold the line against transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. or overseas, despite a renewed push by President Obama and key senators to try to close the controversial facility.
“We've already passed our bill and we're pretty united,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.
McKeon was referring to the defense authorization bill passed by the House in June which contains a provision that prevents the Obama administration from transferring any Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States, including for medical reasons.
That bill also makes it more difficult to send detainees to foreign countries, including Yemen -- home to nearly half of the remaining 164 detainees at Guantanamo.
The Senate is considering its own version of the defense authorization bill this week and Tuesday voted down two Gitmo-related amendments – one that would have matched the House language and prevented the transfer of detainees to the U.S. and overseas, and another that would have initiated a Pentagon process to send the detainees to maximum security prisons in the U.S.
The defeat of both amendments highlighted the continuing division in Congress over how to handle the terror detainees.
Obama first tried to close Gitmo by transferring detainees to Supermax prisons in the U.S. in 2009, but lawmakers for the states where the prisons are located strenuously objected. House Republicans then included language in subsequent defense authorization bills to put a halt to the president's plans.
This year, the Obama administration has renewed its push to close Guantanamo Bay and has lifted a ban on transferring detainees to Yemen. U.S. officials also are working with the Yemeni government and the United Nations to try to build a rehabilitation center outside the capital of Sana'a where it could send detainees from Gitmo.
But Obama still faces intense resistance in the GOP-controlled House.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he is going to do “all he can in the House” to stop any effort to transfer the detainees out of Guantanamo Bay.
“There should be no one from Guantanamo brought back to the United States for any reason because once they're here, no matter what the legislation says, it will open up a whole series of Constitutional challenges once they're on U.S. soil,” he said.
King also adamantly opposes any terrorists being sent back to Yemen.
“I mean, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] started from terrorists who broke out of prison,” he said.
King was referring to an incident in 2006 in which al Qaeda terrorists broke out of a Yemeni top-security prison after spending two months digging a tunnel into a local mosque.
One of the escapees is Jamal Badawi, who planned the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors off the coast of Yemen. Another is Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden's former personal assistant who went on to become the leader of AQAP after the prison break.
A phone call between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, and al-Wuhayshi over the summer triggered a shutdown of a record number of Americans embassies and consulates across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he is adamantly opposed to sending the detainees anywhere for rehabilitation if that means they later would be released in Yemen or any other country where “there are a lot of people who want to kill Americans.”
Some House GOP lawmakers were surprised that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading Republican voice on national security matters, had sponsored the Senate amendment that would have initiated Pentagon plans to close the detention facility and send detainees to the U.S.
The amendment, which the Senate defeated Tuesday, would have given the Pentagon 60 days to prepare a plan to close the detention facility before any tax dollars could be spent upgrading American prisons to hold Gitmo detainees.
McCain told the Washington Examiner he pledged to close Gitmo back in 2008 when he ran against Obama and lost. He said he opposed previous Obama administration attempts to shutter the prison because they lacked a comprehensive plan that made sense to him.
“The reason why they've never been transferred in the past was because there was never a plan…I campaigned saying I want to close Guantanamo,” he said.
He said his and Levin's amendment would have given the administration the “latitude” to transfer detainees.
“And 60 days before anything would happen they'd have to submit a detailed plan,” he said. “And in this amendment we described, in detail, what that detailed plan has to be."
Even though the amendment failed, it renewed serious discussion about sending detainees back to the U.S. after such talk had been quashed for four years.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., took to the Senate floor Tuesday to urge colleagues to give the administration greater flexibility for national security leaders to transfer “certain detainees” to other venues “so they can face justice.”
"We can be tough and we can be smart at the same time,” he said. “Based on evidence, I have faith in our justice system to secure convictions in terrorist cases."
At least one influential House Republican said having McCain weigh in on the side of transferring detainees to the U.S. gives the idea new momentum, even if McKeon and others remain dead-set in their opposition.
“[McCain's] been pretty hardline on this – so if something appeals to him, I think members of the House are going to look at it because it's John McCain,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., noting he still thinks it would be a hard sell.
“I wouldn't say we wouldn't sit down and listen to something but it's going to be a pretty hard sell in the House,” he added. “If we have some assurance [the detainees] are not going back on the battlefield, that would help.”
But Cole, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said the House is now unlikely to take up any controversial measures with leaders in Congress focused on a Dec. 13 deadline for a budget agreement.
Congressional Correspondent Sean Lengell contributed to this report.