On most issues, congressional Democrats are happy to back President Obama, often in the hope that some of his popularity will rub off on them. But when it comes to the president's plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, they're not falling in line.
From the beginning of his presidency, Obama made shuttering the prison a priority for his administration. But members of his party on the Hill now seem to be caving to Republican attacks on the issue. On Wednesday, the Senate -- following the example the House had already set -- voted 90-6 to strip funding to close the facility from a war appropriations bill.
To be fair, Obama has yet to answer a lot of questions about what will happen to the 240 prisoners currently being held at Guantanamo Bay, and that's not making it easy for congressional Democrats to counter the Republican charge that the move will make Americans less safe. Obama's Pentagon policy chief, Michele Flournoy, said Wednesday that the U.S. will have to take in some prisoners. But at the same time, FBI Director Robert Mueller seemed to indicate, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, that the Bureau isn't sold on the idea of moving detainees to the American mainland. While he did say that the risk that one could escape from a maximum security facility was small, he brought up the example of gang leaders who've been able to run their gangs from inside prison walls as an example of what could happen with detainees transferred to U.S. soil.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday that the Senate could still support closing Guantanamo Bay -- that is, once Obama provides more detail. “The administration has not come up with a plan at this point,” Durbin said. “I think Guantanamo should be closed and we have to wait for the president’s direction on what happens to the detainees.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck a different note in a baffling talk with reporters about the issue. While he acknowledged that shutting down Guantanamo Bay was the right decision, Reid also said, "Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States." Pressed by reporters wondering how imprisoning detainees in the U.S. would be equal to releasing them, Reid said, "The U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans, don't want terrorists released in the United States... If terrorists are released in the United States, part of what we don't want is them be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."