WASHINGTON — Deep divisions among members of a Senate panel over whether to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, underscore the uphill battle President Barack Obama faces in fulfilling a 5-year-old promise to shutter the facility.
Opening the first Senate hearing on closing Guantanamo since 2009, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Wednesday that it's time to end a "sad chapter" in American history and close Guantanamo.
The Obama administration can do more to begin closing the prison, according to Durbin, but he said the blame for the failure to shutter the much-maligned facility rests primarily with Congress.
Restrictions enacted by Congress on the transfer of terror suspects at Guantanamo — including a ban on moving detainees to the U.S. - have undercut President Barack Obama's authority and made it nearly impossible to close the facility, he said.
"It's time to lift these restrictions and move forward with shutting down Guantanamo prison," said Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and human rights.
"We can transfer most of the detainees to foreign countries," he said. "And we can bring the others to the United States, where they can be tried in federal court or held under the law of war until the end of hostilities."
But Durbin's pitch ran into immediate resistance from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the panel's top Republican. Cruz said if the facility is shut down there will be no place to send dangerous terror suspects.
He criticized the Obama administration for its "rosy assessment" of how much damage has been done to al-Qaida. That has led to the belief that "we can now take a holiday from the long difficult task of combating radical Islamic terrorism."
Cruz said that the White House position "seems to be to continue apologizing for the existence of Guantanamo, to continue apologizing for our detaining terrorists and standing up to defend ourselves, but to do nothing affirmative to address the problem."
Even should the Democratic-controlled Senate vote to close Guantanamo, the GOP-led House of Representatives wants the prison kept open. The House voted 247 to 175 Tuesday to reject an amendment that would have allowed Obama to begin closing the facility.
Obama has stepped up the pressure to close the prison, driven in part by his revised counterterrorism strategy and the stain of the government force-feeding Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strikes to prevent them from starving to death.
At the same time, civil liberties groups and liberal lawmakers have criticized Obama for failing to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close the installation and find another home for the 166 terror suspects being held there indefinitely.
As of Wednesday, 69 of the prisoners were classified as being on hunger strike and 45 of those taking part in the protest met the criteria for being force fed, said Army Lt. Col. Sam House, a spokesman for the detention center. Most of the 69 prisoners eat occasional meals but still meet the criteria used by the military to classify someone as a hunger striker, House said.
During a May 23 speech at the National Defense University, Obama announced a renewed push to transfer approved detainees to their home countries and lift a ban on prisoner transfers to Yemen. The bulk of the prisoners eligible for transfer are Yemeni. Obama halted all transfers to the poor Middle Eastern nation in 2010, after a man trained in Yemen was convicted in a failed bombing attempt of an airliner over Detroit.
Obama promised other steps that have yet to be taken. He appointed Clifford Sloan, a Washington attorney, to reopen the State Department's Office of Guantanamo Closure. But he has yet to appoint an envoy at the Defense Department who would negotiate the transfer of detainees to third countries.
He also directed the Defense Department Defense to designate a site in the United States that could hold military commissions, a special tribunal for wartime offenses. That site has yet to be announced, however.
Durbin said that keeping Guantanamo open hurts the image of the United States and wastes taxpayer dollars. Durbin estimates it costs $2.7 million per year to house each of the prisoners at Guantanamo compared to the $78,000 annual expense of keeping them in a federal prison.
But Cruz pointed to the mass escape of prisoners held in two high-security jails on the outskirts of Baghdad this week that set free hundreds of inmates as a stark example of relying on foreign facilities to hold terror suspects.
Two members of the House of Representatives, invited to testify, offered widely divergent opinions on Guantanamo's future.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, a member of the House intelligence committee, called Guantanamo "critical to national security." The risk of closing the detention center and bringing prisoners to the U.S. is the "potential for endless litigation and rights expanded well beyond those afforded to enemy combatants," he said.
But Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said there is no benefit to keeping Guantanamo open. All the arguments about the need to detain and interrogate terror suspects and the necessity to continue to fight the war on terror can be accomplished by holding prisoners in the U.S., he said.
"It's just been stupefying over the last several years the degree with which people seem to have become unaware that we already hold hundreds of terrorists in United States supermax prisons," Smith said.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico contributed to this report.