Democrats pushed ahead Wednesday with a $42.8 billion homeland security budget that keeps alive the goal of closing Guantanamo someday while preserving President Barack Obama’s discretion — in the interim — to bring detainees into the United States for short periods to stand trial.
Little else of consequence is permitted until the president comes up with a plan acceptable to lawmakers for the future of the detention facility, but going even this far could be risky, given the given political nervousness in Congress.
Just last week, 88 Democrats joined House Republicans in flatly opposing any Guantanamo prisoners coming into the United States for any reason. And House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.) was careful Wednesday to keep open all options as to how the House-Senate agreement now will come back to the floor.
“He just blew off his caucus,” a senior Republican aide told POLITICO, warning of trouble ahead.
But Democrats seem determined to take a stand, both for Obama and because many now believe that however much they compromise, Guantanamo has become a political bone that Republicans will never leave alone.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), a former political science professor and theology student, is scarcely viewed as a bomb thrower, but his frustration — as the bill manager for the House — was evident.
“The question today is, should the option exist to bring those who can and should be brought to trial on U.S. soil — can they be brought for that purpose?” Price told POLITICO. “We basically gave the Republicans all the points they had in our bill and more, and it almost seems an effort to find the one point of difference where we didn’t agree.”
“No majority party, no party representing the president, could agree to that. ... If George Bush were still president, Republicans would feel the same way, I believe.” Both Obama and his Republican presidential rival last year, Arizona Sen. John McCain, campaigned on the promise of closing Guantanamo, and within days of taking power, the new president signed an executive order setting a one-year deadline from last January for meeting that goal.
These bold vows have since faded, and there is no chance now of meeting that deadline, since the beginning of last spring, Congress has effectively withheld any money to proceed until the president comes forth with a plan that addresses fears about relocating prisoners from the facility on the island of Cuba.
“We are caving in to the fear that our criminal justice system can’t handle this on the continental United States,” Rep. Sam Farr (D-Cal.) said in the homeland security negotiations. And even in the case of limited trial appearances, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is wont to speak of the defendants being relocated in “our backyard.”
But Rogers said in an interview that he is more concerned about the trials themselves and risk that new rights will be conferred upon prisoners once they are in a federal court. “It is the conferring of rights on prisoners of war that would reflect back onto how we capture prisoners of war,” Rogers told POLITICO. And Rep. John Culberson (R -Texas) went so far as to argue that American soldiers would become “policemen,” having to read Miranda rights to prisoners taken on foreign battlefields.
“This is a motion more in search of an issue than a motion in search of a solution,” said Obey, showing his impatience. And within the small sphere of the Appropriations Committee members assembled for the homeland security talks, he had full control.
On a 10-6 party-line vote, Rogers’s motion — which closely tracked the House resolution last week — was defeated. A second by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) that sought to block any action on Obama’s executive order also failed, 9-6.
Democrats have two assets going forward: first, the underlying homeland security bill itself and, second, a separate agreement Wednesday on new language to make military commissions more workable as an alternative for federal court trials for detainees.
Republicans are uncomfortable with the total spending in the package: a $2.6 billion, or 6.6 percent, increase over current funding. But the priorities are popular, including substantial new money for Southwest border security as well as a record $778.3 million investment in new explosive-detection systems for airports — more than twice the amount of any past appropriation for this purpose.
In the case of the military commissions, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) predicted the changes “should go a long way to ensure that any convictions obtained through military commissions will hold up on appeal and will be perceived as fair and just by the American public and by the rest of the world.”
Specific changes include greater limits on the use of hearsay evidence and better procedures for the sharing of classified information important to the proceedings. In addition, defendants would be promised access to witnesses and documentary evidence on a level comparable to the access they would have in civilian courts and would be ensured representation and reslurces to make their defense.