Seeing New Opportunity, Obama Lobbies on Key Gitmo Vote

For the first time since 2009, Obama stands a chance of winding down detention at Guantanamo Bay, but some Democrats still oppose his plans.

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John Moore / Getty Images

Detainees kneel during an early morning Islamic prayer at the U.S. military prison for "enemy combatants" on October 28, 2009 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In a quiet new push for its goal of ending detention at Guantanamo Bay, the White House is lobbying swing-state Democrats ahead of votes expected before Thanksgiving. The votes could mark a turning point in President Obama’s long and frustrating push to shut down the controversial prison camp and set up an end-of-the-year showdown with the Republican-led House.

In theory, the prospects for action in the Senate are better this year than in the past thanks to a much lower vote threshold needed to legalize the removal of some or all of the remaining 164 detainees at the facility, many of whom have repeatedly been cleared for release. Where sixty votes were required before, Democrats—who hold 53 seats, and can usually rely on two independent allies—now only need a simple majority.

The fight is possible thanks to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, who moved the 2014 defense authorization bill out of committee last June with provisions that would allow Obama a freer hand to transfer prisoners out of Gitmo. The Michigan Democrat’s bill would shift the decision to transfer detainees to a foreign country from the White House to the Pentagon, offering political cover to Obama. The bill also allows Obama to move some detainees to the US for trial or indefinite detention, or temporarily for medical treatment.

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Because those provisions emerged as part of the larger, must-pass defense bill from Levin’s committee, their backers will only need 50 votes to defend them, rather than the 60 that would be needed on the Senate floor to attach them. Opponents would need to filibuster the whole defense bill to block the provisions.

Even so, it’s not clear Obama and his top counterterrorism aide, Lisa Monaco, can clear the lower bar. “The politics remain difficult,” says one Democratic staffer supporting Levin’s provisions, “we’re in the mid-40s or thereabouts, so it’s not impossible.”

Last year, an amendment to the Pentagon’s annual spending bill, which blocked detainee transfers from Gitmo, won 54-41 with ten Democratic votes. Three of those Democrats have since retired, however, and their successors—Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii—may be more amenable. Obama also may gain an independent vote from Angus King of Maine, who replaced Republican Olympia Snowe. The White House would like to flip swing- or red-state Democrats who voted against transfers, especially those not facing reelection next year: the retiring Max Baucus of Montana, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Harder to convince would be those Democrats who voted against the transfers and are up in 2014, like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The White House also needs to hold vulnerable Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Udall of Colorado, who are also up next year.

Among the White House’s arguments is that keeping Gitmo open indefinitely is expensive: the Pentagon has asked for an addition $200 million to update the facility to improve conditions for guards and prosecutors. Each detainee costs taxpayers more than $900,000 per year, compared to around $60,000 for a Supermax inmate. The administration also argues that recent domestic trials have successfully brought terrorists to justice, whereas the military tribunals at Guantanamo are slow and plagued by procedural problems.

Even if Obama can win on the Senate floor, Levin’s NDAA would have to be reconciled with the House version, which retains the existing limits on Guantanamo transfers. That would further test the political will of the White House in a potential showdown at the end of the year. The White House declined to comment on its progress. The bill is expected to come to the floor as early as the week of Nov. 18.