For the past week, the White House has been talking about its first-day promise to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — on the last day, if need be, of Barack Obama’s presidency. And it might take that long, too, because Congress has overwhelmingly passed a new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to fund the military that extends a prohibition on transfers from Gitmo. Obama isn’t likely to issue a veto, either:
The Senate voted 91-3 on the $607-billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which lays out broad defense policy requirements and restrictions.
Obama vetoed the original bill largely because of concerns about an extra $38 billion in war funding. A two-year budget deal passed late last month resolved that policy fight by increasing both defense and non-defense spending.
The new version cut $5 billion from the original bill to match the budget deal, including $250 million to the administration’s Counterterrorism Partnerships fund and more than $1 billion fuel savings.
“I’m proud of this legislation. Could we have done more? Yes… But I would argue that this is the most significant reform legislation in the last 30 years,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who helped spearhead the bill in the Senate, said ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
The legislation, which passed the House by a 370-58 vote last week, includes restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, adding roadblocks to a long-standing campaign pledge from Obama to close the facility.
In order to sustain a veto, Congress would have to muster 67 votes in the Senate and 292 votes in the House. The spending bill passed with far wider margins, which means that the White House would have to argue for both a funding crisis for the military in the middle of fighting in two theaters of war while seeking to get an enormous number of votes to flip in a short period of time.
In other words, it’s a fight Obama will lose, and will look bad in losing, so don’t expect him to fight it. He’ll sign it, but don’t expect a media event when he does. I’d bet on the autopen approach, perhaps sometime late in the evening.
The White House tried to get serious about their plan to close Gitmo yesterday, but without much luck:
Even John McCain, who favors shutting down the detention center at Gitmo, expressed his disdain for Obama’s eleventh-hour effort:
Earlier this year, the NDAA was considered a prime candidate to carry a plan to shutter Guantanamo — or at least force Congress to consider the issue. But Congress has effectively run out of time to shoehorn a plan into the NDAA — meaning once the Senate approves the bill, Obama could have missed his last, best chance to close Guantanamo with congressional participation.
“They’re expecting us at the 11th hour, whenever it is, even after the defense authorization bill?” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), complaining that there’s no time to address closing Guantanamo in the NDAA. “I have to examine the plan, I have to show my colleagues that it’s something they can support,” McCain said. “You can’t just rubber-stamp it.”
McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is one of the few outspoken Republicans who favor closing Guantanamo. He even worked language into the Senate’s original version of the NDAA that would have compelled lawmakers to vote on a plan to close Guantanamo once one was formally unveiled by Obama. But with no plan on hand, McCain’s language failed to make the final bill.
Note the qualifier in the Washington Post account: “with congressional participation.” Obama might be able to use his executive authority — strongest in the context of acting as commander in chief — to find other options. It will be difficult to do so, though, which is why this lackadaisical effort is somewhat surprising. The remaining detainees, several dozen of whom are considered extremely dangerous, originate from Yemen, Syria, and Libya — places which Congress has forbidden by statute for repatriation. Obama could find other countries willing to take in these dangerous terrorists, but who? And what kind of security guarantees could possibly be reliable from the kind of countries that would welcome these terrorists? There’s always Qatar, but even that emirate might think twice about having that many nihilists dumped on them all at once. This might be game over for closing Gitmo, but … don’t necessarily bet on this being the last attempt.