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Democrats Block Funding To Close Guantanamo

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Closing down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is going to cost money. President Obama has requested $80 million, and he's run into a bipartisan wall of opposition in Congress. Yesterday, Senate Democrats - who had included the funding in a larger war spending bill - decided to strip it out, just as House Democrats have done. They won't consider any money until the president sends Congress a detailed plan on where the prison's 240 detainees will go. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: Just as he's done nearly every day the Senate's been in session over the past month, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rose once again yesterday to rail against President Obama's decision to close Guantanamo by early next year.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Shutting this facility now could only serve one end, that's to make Americans less safe than Guantanamo has.

WELNA: What McConnell did not know at the time was that Democratic leaders had already decided to get rid of the money they'd put in the emergency war spending bill for Guantanamo's shut down. As debate began on that bill a few hours later, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that decision on the Senate floor.

HARRY REID: Democrats, under no circumstances, will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. And we will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States. I think the president will come up with a plan. Once that plan is given to us, then we'll have the opportunity to debate his plan. Now is not the time to do it.

WELNA: Both the Democrats sudden reversal and their demand that the president present a plan gave a rare victory to Republicans. Utah's Orrin Hatch said Democrats have finally wised up about Guantanamo.

ORRIN HATCH: They finally faced reality that that is a perfect place to park these people. No state in the union wants them.

WELNA: And it's clear there's no lack of not-in-my-backyard Democrats when it comes to relocating the Guantanamo detainees. Nebraska's Ben Nelson is one of them.

BEN NELSON: Certainly, I've made it clear, you know, they're not welcome in Nebraska. And Kansas can do what it wants, but that'd still be too close to Nebraska for me.

WELNA: Like Majority Leader Reid, Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh is up for reelection next year. He, too, opposes sending Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.

EVAN BAYH: We have a supermax facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. I don't think the citizens of my state would look too kindly on having those folks housed in our state.

WELNA: Other Democrats take a very different view. California's Dianne Feinstein says Republicans have vastly overstated the risks of moving Guantanamo detainees to prisons in the U.S.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Most Americans don't know that we already have major terrorists and serial killers housed in supermax federal prisons from which no one has ever escaped and is not in anyone's community. So this shibboleth of, oh, the Democrats want to put terrorists in your neighborhood is just a lot of bull.

WELNA: Some Republicans, including Arizona's John McCain, also want Guantanamo closed. But McCain, too, wants a plan first.

JOHN MCCAIN: The American people deserve a detailed explanation for what will take place the day after Guantanamo is closed. And they must be certain that their government will execute its most fundamental duty, which is to keep America and its citizens safe.

WELNA: President Obama is expected to address the Guantanamo impasse in a speech tomorrow. Rutgers University congressional expert Ross Baker says closing Guantanamo could be a touch sale for the president.

ROSS BAKER: It may come to the fact that the president really has got to go out and, in a sense, sell a community a toxic waste dump. And that's not an easy sell. But if anybody can do it, I guess the president can.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.