WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's allies in the Senate will not provide funds to close the Guantanamo Bay prison until the administration comes up with a satisfactory plan for transferring the detainees held there, top Democrats said Tuesday. And in a further break with Obama, the Senate's top Democrat said he opposes transferring any Guantanamo prisoners to the United States for their trials or to serve their sentences. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said 50 to 100 Guantanamo detainees may be transferred to U.S. facilities.
"I can't make it any more clear," Reid said. "We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States."
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said Obama's plan to close Guantanamo is not dead _ only that the funding will have to wait until the administration devises an acceptable plan to handle the closure and transfer the detainees. Obama has promised to close the military prison by January.
"The administration has not come up with a plan at this point," said Durbin, who is the whip, or No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. He added that Democrats are likely to address the issue on later legislation. "I think Guantanamo should be closed and we have to wait for the president's direction on what happens to the detainees."
Durbin said that he could support transferring detainees to U.S. prisons. "Our prisons are filled with dangerous people, including terrorists. And not a single one has escaped," he said.
With debate looming on Obama's spending request to cover military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Democrats will deny the Pentagon and Justice Department $80 million to relocate Guantanamo's 240 detainees.
The administration has yet to develop a plan for what to do with the detainees, and Obama's promise to close the facility is facing strong GOP opposition.
It appears to be a tactical retreat. Once the administration develops a plan to close the facility, congressional Democrats are likely to revisit the topic, provided they are satisfied there are adequate safeguards.
Explaining the reversal, Durbin said: "The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown. We were being asked to defend a plan that hasn't been announced. And the administration said, 'Understood. Give us time to put together that plan and we'll come to you in the next appropriations bill.'"
The developments on Capitol Hill came as the Pentagon said it still expects the prison at Guantanamo Bay to be closed by January 2010 as Obama has ordered.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters on Tuesday that he sees nothing to indicate the January 2010 deadline will be delayed.
Republicans are poised with an amendment by James Inhofe of Oklahoma that would block any of the Guantanamo detainees from coming to U.S. soil to stand trial or serve their sentences. A detainee was released to France last week, leaving 240 at Guantanamo.
"Shuttering this facility now could only serve one end: and that is to make Americans less safe than Guantanamo has," said GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"Guantanamo is the perfect place for these terrorists," McConnell said later.
House Democrats also dropped funding to close Guantanamo when producing their version of the war funding bill, which easily passed last week.
The Guantanamo controversy has roiled Washington, with most Republicans adamantly opposed to closing the prison, which mostly holds enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan. Republicans say abuses at the facility are a thing of the past.
The Senate's massive war spending measure otherwise sticks closely to Obama's request. The House version effectively exceeds Obama's request by almost $12 billion, adding $2.2 billion for foreign aid and eight C-17 cargo planes despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' desire to cease purchases of the aircraft as part of his effort to overhaul Pentagon procurement.