WASHINGTON — Senators on Tuesday illustrated their paralysis over what to do with the Guantanamo Bay prison, voting down dueling bills to loosen and tighten restrictions on transferring detainees.
The result fails to significantly advance President Obama’s long-standing goal of closing the facility for terror suspects, but prevents rules from being inserted into the Senate’s annual defense policy bill that would have made it even harder to try detainees in the United States or release them overseas.
Almost 12 years after its creation and almost five years since Obama vowed on his first day in office to close the prison, 164 suspects remain at the U.S. naval facility in Cuba. Restrictions imposed by Congress have brought transfers to a virtual standstill even though more than half the men there have been cleared for transfer.
An amendment to the defense bill proposed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would have eased the Obama administration’s ability to detain and try suspects in the United States or release them overseas. But it fell eight votes shy of the 60-vote threshold needed for passage. The vote was 52-46.
“I would hope this could be broadly supported,” Levin said before the vote.
McCain read a letter from 38 former U.S. military leaders voicing their support. It called Guantanamo a “symbol of torture” and a recruiting tool for al-Qaida.
Earlier, an opposing amendment championed by Republican senators such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia that would have made it even harder for Obama to move prisoners was defeated 55-43.
One of the backers, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., defended the treatment of Guantanamo detainees and said one of their biggest problems was obesity.
“They’re eating better than they’ve ever eaten at any other time in their life,” Inhofe said.
Ayotte said that without Guantanamo the United States would have no adequate place for prolonged interrogation of major terrorists such as al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri were he to be captured.
The stalemate leaves language in the defense bill that only slightly advances Obama’s cause. The White House has called the bill constructive while insisting that even more be done to provide officials with the necessary flexibility to close the prison.
Any final law needs the GOP-led House’s support, and such a scenario is highly unlikely.
Congressional politics loomed large in the votes. Joining the majority of Republicans who voted to keep the detention center open were Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who face tough re-election races next year in states Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Pryor was joined by four of the most liberal Democratic members of the Senate in voting against Levin and McCain’s amendment: Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Leahy’s office said the senator supported provisions already in the defense bill. In a recent statement, Leahy said that while those provisions would ease restrictions incrementally, they are “common sense changes and they are necessary if we are serious about putting an end to this ugly chapter in our history.”
The provisions would allow the transfer of terror suspects to the U.S. for detention and trial if the defense secretary decided it was in the national security interest and any public safety issues had been addressed. The bill also makes it easier for the president to transfer prisoners to foreign countries.
Obama’s effort to loosen restrictions on Guantanamo detainees faces dogged resistance, with opponents citing the cases of some suspects who’ve been released to foreign countries only to later join terrorist efforts.
Earlier this year, the House banned sending detainees to Yemen, where more than half the remaining detainees come from. Yemen is also home to perhaps al-Qaida’s most active branch.
Obama established his own ban on Yemeni transfers after a Nigerian man tried to blow up a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas four years ago with explosives hidden in his underwear. The bombing instructions came from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. Obama lifted the moratorium in May, calling Guantanamo a “symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
Senate advocates of closing Guantanamo repeatedly cited the high cost of maintaining the facility: $2.7 million a year per prisoner.
Total spending on Guantanamo amounts to $454 million a year, according to the Defense Department.