House Democrats' "No" on Guantanamo Closure a Stunning Rebuke to Obama

Congressional Democrats cite lack of clear plan for facility, detainees in stunning rebuke.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Barack Obama experience his first congressional hiccup Monday when Democrats in the House failed to back his efforts to close the U.S.-run detention facility housing suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to Tuesday's Washington Times, House Democrats "rejected Mr. Obama's request for $81 million to close the detention center" as part of a war-funding bill, "saying the White House lacks a plan to safely relocate the roughly 240 terrorist suspects held on the island."

Obama ordered the facility closed during a flurry of activity over his presidency's first days. Nevertheless, the order to close the detention center was not accompanied by a plan to do so, something that has provoked considerable criticism from congressional Republicans.

The Democrats' refusal to back the White House's request is a stunning rebuke to the president. And it is a slap in the face to the antiwar activists who provided money and political volunteers to help Obama win the White House last November and who have been extremely vocal in their demands that the Gitmo facility be closed.

One key defector appears to be House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, the powerful Wisconsin Democrat who keeps the federal government's purse strings in his hip pocket.

Obey, who agrees that Gitmo should be closed, had strong words for the White House's failure to handle the matter with more skill. "While I don't mind defending a concrete program," the Times quoted Obey saying, "I'm not much interested in wasting my energy defending a theoretical program."

When the White House gets a plan together, Obey added, "they are welcome to come back and talk to us about it." 

The decision to withhold funding for Gitmo's closure creates political problems on a number of fronts for the Democrats as it will likely spark howls of outrage from the antiwar left, who view the camp's existence as continuing proof of the venality of the Bush presidency. To them, the failure to move ahead with the closure of Gitmo will likely be seen as a political sellout and could have serious repercussions as the year progresses.

But it also creates a wedge between the Obama Congress and the president himself. Recent surveys have shown that Obama remains more popular than his programs, a popularity that does not translate to Democrats generally, Democrats who are already concerned about the upcoming elections in 2010. 

The American public, while apparently supportive of Gitmo's closure, according to several private surveys I have seen, wants it closed carefully, not recklessly. The idea that the detainees might be moved to the United States or, worse, released there, does not sit well with them.

We now have the first division of the new presidency. The bloom is off the rose.

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  • Read more by Peter Roff.
  • Read more about Guantanamo Bay.
  • Read more about al Qaeda.