WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's 5-year-old campaign to close the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered a major setback as lawmakers finalizing the annual defense policy bill rejected steps toward shuttering the facility.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Monday that the final bill omits a provision giving the president the authority to transfer terror suspects to the United States if Congress signs off on a comprehensive plan to close the prison.
Levin had pushed for the authority and hailed it in May as creating "a path to close Guantanamo." With lawmakers rushing to complete the defense bill in this month's lame-duck session, Levin said proponents were unable to prevail.
"Our language ... (on Guantanamo) ... will not be in," Levin said.
The House and Senate are expected to vote and overwhelmingly approve the sweeping policy bill in the coming days, sending it to Obama.
The president has pushed to close the post-9/11 prison since his inauguration in January 2009. He has faced strong resistance from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who don't want terror suspects housed in U.S. facilities and have warned of suspects returning to the fight when they are transferred back to their home countries.
In its version of the defense bill in May, the Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision that would authorize the transfer of terror suspects to U.S. soil "for detention, trial and incarceration, subject to stringent security measures and legal protections, once the president has submitted a plan to Congress for closing Guantanamo and Congress has had an opportunity to vote to disapprove that plan under expedited procedures."
The House version of the defense bill prohibited the transfer to U.S. soil, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have repeatedly and successfully fought White House efforts to move detainees prevailed in the final version of the defense bill.
Currently, the prison holds 142 men, including 73 already cleared for release.
Last month, the Pentagon said it sent a Saudi citizen who has spent the past 12 years detained at Guantanamo to his homeland. The transfer of Muhammad al-Zahrani was based on the conclusion of a U.S. government board that has been re-evaluating the need to continue holding some of the men as prisoners.