The House passed a bill Thursday to bar President Barack Obama from moving any detainees from the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay. The legislation cues up a veto showdown with the White House just as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who supports Obama’s push to close Guantanamo, faces tightening polls and a shrinking election calendar.
The bill, which passed 244-174, would block the federal government from spending any money on detainee transfers until the end of the calendar year, or until the president signs fresh defense funding into law.
The bill’s effect, if not its central goal, is to explicitly deprive Obama of one of his last options to whittle down Guantanamo’s current population by transferring detainees to other countries. The GOP-controlled Congress is attempting to run out the clock on Obama’s pledge as a candidate to shutter the detention facility.
“For the president, this is about keeping a campaign promise,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement Thursday. “For us, this is about keeping Americans safe.”
The White House has already vowed to veto the bill should it pass the Senate, arguing that Congress is once again impeding the commander in chief’s ability to conduct national security.
“Moreover, by purporting to prohibit all transfers of individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay, the bill would in some circumstances violate constitutional separation of powers principles,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday, recommending a veto.
Throughout Obama’s tenure, Congress has thwarted the administration by passing legislation barring officials from moving detainees to the United States, or constructing or modifying facilities to hold the detainees on U.S. soil, rather than in Cuba.
But it has not yet barred transfers altogether. The Obama administration has made a renewed and aggressive push to ship out detainees who have received the go ahead from national security agencies; the biggest single transfer yet was Aug. 15, when 15 detainees were sent to the UAE, leaving 61 detainees at Gitmo.
The latest Guantanamo bill and the veto pledge reinject the controversial debate over closing the facility into the 2016 race, putting Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, in the difficult position of taking sides. With high public anxiety over national security, Republicans see Guantanamo as a winning issue, and have sought to get candidates on record regarding transfers.
For the GOP, the transfers show Obama is putting politics before national security, because the detainees could go back into the fight against the U.S. and its allies.
Republicans also seized on reports Thursday that two more detainees released from Guantanamo and transferred to other countries during the Obama administration were believed to have returned to terrorism in the first two months of 2016, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Shortly after the legislation passed, the National Republican Senatorial Committee used that news to hit New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who’s running to replace Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the upper chamber. Ayotte is one of the most vulnerable Republicans in 2016 and one of Obama’s loudest critics on Guantanamo.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina, another threatened GOP incumbent, tweeted:
By releasing #Gitmo detainees back into the fight, we continue to stack the deck against our own security interests.
— Richard Burr (@SenatorBurr) September 15, 2016
But the reality of Obama’s record is a bit different.
Of the 161 detainees freed from Guantanamo by Obama since he took office, a total of nine, or 5.6 percent, are confirmed to have reengaged with militant groups, according to ODNI.
By comparison, Obama’s predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, released far more detainees from Guantanamo with far less scrutiny. Of the 532 detainees freed by Bush, 113, or 21.2 percent, have turned to terrorism, ODNI says.
THOMAS WATKINS / Staff