Washington (AFP) – The Senate voted Tuesday to maintain a proposal that eases restrictions on transferring detainees from Guantanamo, setting up a potential first step toward closing the controversial war-on-terror prison.
By rejecting two competing amendments on the fate of Guantanamo and the terror suspects held there, the U.S. Senate left legislative efforts on track that could ultimately accomplish President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to shutter the controversial detainee facility.
The existing language is part of the 2014 defense spending bill now under consideration, and which Congress aims to pass in December.
The main battle over the Guantanamo prison’s fate is likely to occur within the next month, when the Senate and House are expected to negotiate a final spending bill.
As proposed in the Senate, the bill loosens restrictions on moving detainees out of the prison, including those who have long been cleared for transfer overseas but are still held.
It would also lift a ban on sending terror suspects from Guantanamo to the U.S. mainland for detention, trial or emergency medical treatment.
Many Republicans oppose these changes, but the amendment to block such language in the defense bill, which would virtually ensure continued operation of the facility, failed 43-55.
Despite the additional failure of a bipartisan measure that would have ensured that detainees transferred to the United States have no extra legal rights beyond what they have in Guantanamo, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hailed the day of debate as “extremely important.”
“I felt it was appropriate that the Republicans have an opportunity to see if they could change it,” Reid said after the votes.
Obama’s Democrats and rival Republicans are largely split on the future of the detention facility at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Shortly after his 2009 inauguration Obama committed to closing the prison, but the goal has eluded him, complicated by claims from opponents that significant numbers of released detainees went on to join terror groups back home.
Guantanamo still holds 164 “war on terror” suspects, including 56 Yemenis who were deemed not to be a security threat but were under a moratorium until May for transfer to their violence-wracked country.
Most have never been charged or tried and face indefinite detention for as-yet unproven suspicions.
On Monday the White House called the Armed Services Committee’s Guantanamo proposal “constructive” and said it wanted to work with Congress to ensure “flexibility” in allowing the administration to transfer such detainees if security threats were sufficiently mitigated.
Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on Armed Services, said “sticking points” remained.
“I feel very strongly about that issue,” Inhofe told AFP, referring to his opposition to easing Guantanamo restrictions. “I like the language in the House bill on Gitmo.”
The Republican-led House of Representatives’ defense spending bill, which passed last June, would bar the administration from transferring detainees to U.S. soil or a foreign country such as Yemen.
Armed Services chairman Senator Carl Levin said passing the bill as is would “get us past our fear that we can not securely handle Gitmo detainees in this country.”
The Michigan Democrat said Guantanamo, operated at the cost of more than $400 million annually, does not increase U.S. security, serving instead as “an argument for jihad” against the United States.
He also acknowledged that forging a timely compromise on the massive bill “is going to be a very difficult task.”
Concern has surged in Washington that the timing would slip past Thanksgiving next week, which is a rest week for lawmakers.
“No, I don’t see how you do all this this week,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
He said crucial amendments should be considered including potential new sanctions against Iran in the midst of U.S. and western negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Senator Kelly Ayotte had hoped to block the easing of restrictions.
“Why would we want the most dangerous terrorists in the world, some of them, to come to the United States” when there is a functional military prison at Guantanamo, said Ayotte.
But Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International said the Senate provisions “will help ensure that each detainee is either given a safe and fair trial in U.S. federal court or is transferred to another country if cleared to leave.”