by Martin Matishak
President Obama is unlikely to go against the will of Congress and unilaterally shutter the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, lawmakers from both parties predict.
“I don’t know that he can,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “I know that there are enough congressional restrictions on the books that limit his options.”
Unlike the recent fight over immigration, where the law gave Obama wide latitude to change policy on his own, lawmakers have passed multiple laws that tie the president’s hands on closing the controversial detention facility.
“This is where Congress has stated pretty clearly, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that,’ ” Kaine told The Hill. “I think he’s got pretty clear guidance about what his limits are.”
“I don’t know what his authority is in this area,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
But Obama’s “intentions are clear. His efforts are non-stop,” he added.
The Defense Department has been working in recent years to try and move detainees out of the detention facility. The Pentagon last week announced the transfer of six detainees to Uruguay, bringing the total number of prisoners remaining at Guantánamo to 136, down from a high of roughly 700.
Obama has promised to close the detention facility before he leaves office, which would fulfill a pledge he made during the 2008 campaign.
“We’re working on it,” Obama said while when asked when the prison would close during a visit to a bookstore over Thanksgiving weekend.
But congressional opposition to such an action remains strong.
Last week, retiring House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressing concern that about half of the current prison population, 68 detainees, have been cleared for transfer, pending the Pentagon chief’s approval.
“The release of these detainees raises considerable questions and concerns about the risk to Americans,” McKeon said.
Democrats at times have tried to help Obama’s push to close the prison.
Retiring Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) included a provision in his versions of the fiscal year 2015 defense authorization act (NDAA) that would have sped up the facility’s closure by allowing the Defense secretary to move detainees from Cuba to the U.S.
But that language was dropped in the negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers over the compromise version of the legislation that passed Congress this week.
“We pushed hard to get the Senate provision adopted,” Levin said recently. “We could not get the Republicans.”
Levin suggested that if Democrats had kept pressing the Guantánamo issue “there wouldn’t be a bill” at all.
The final defense bill keeps in place a number of existing prohibitions, including bans on transferring detainees to the U.S. and on constructing new detention facilities on U.S. soil.
If Obama were to throw caution to the wind and move forward, Democrats and Republicans predict he would encounter vigorous opposition.
“We’ll use every procedure that is available to us,” Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, told The Hill.
He added that Obama “has an obsession to close Gitmo. An obsession.”
Inhofe emphasized the GOP will control both chambers of Congress next year and could include language blocking executive action on the prison to policy and spending bills. Stand-alone legislation on Guantánamo is also possible, he said.
“We will have Republicans in charge and we will do what we can to use that resource to save American lives.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blasted the detainee transfers, saying Obama is “letting people out who are dangerous. “
“He doesn’t have the political ability to convince the Congress and the American people to close it so he’s trying to do it in a very absurd way,” Graham said.
“In January of next year you can see a full-scale assault by the Congress on this policy to empty this prison,” he vowed, adding that if the president tried to go it alone, “you’ll have a constitutional crisis on your hands.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the president “made an improvident campaign promise and he’s determined to try to execute it.”
“Where we are, if the president could have used executive powers, he would have already used them,” he told The Hill.
The Democrat who will take the ranking position on the Senate the Armed Services Committee next year, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), said the “best way” to close Guantánamo would be through legislation.
He said one of the reasons Democrats couldn’t close the prison this year was a lack of time in work on the defense bill.
“We didn’t have a chance to bring amendments to the floor. Hopefully next year we can start earlier,” Reed said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Obama would face mostly GOP opposition to executive action on Guantanamo but “there might be some Democrats” who also object.
Durbin gave a similar response when asked if members of the president’s own party would oppose such a move.
“Some might, but I wouldn’t,” he said.
This article first appeared in The Hill.