By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
In a stunning example that where you stand, in Washington, depends on where you sit, Senate Democrats handed Barack Obama the first major defeat of his presidency by refusing to fund his effort to close the U.S. detention facility for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat said the plan to close "Gitmo" is not dead but that funding will not be forthcoming until Obama devises an "acceptable plan to handle the closure and transfer the detainees," the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Durbin's announcement means that Senate Democrats are now in line with their colleagues in the House of Representatives on what became a signature issue, linked to an important Obama promise, during the 2008 presidential campaign.
To put this in perspective, it's as though the Republicans on Capitol Hill decided-while the majority party in Congress-to withhold funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until President Bush could show them a plan for winning the war.
Obama ran and won the Democratic presidential nomination as the anti-war candidate, giving considerable lip service to the demands and desires of the party's leftwing, for whom Gitmo is powerfully symbolic. A combination of Alcatraz, Devil's Island and the Chateau d'If, it represents every suspicion and negative thought they have about American political and military power and is a screaming example of the collateral injustices Bush's war on terror have brought to the world. They applauded when Obama promised to shut it during the campaign and applauded even louder when he signed the executive order closing it.
At the time it looked like a free shot, an easy lay up. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from January 2009 showed 53 percent of Americans saying Gitmo should be closed. Now that it's not such a sure thing Obama-who doesn't have to run for re-election until 2012-has left his fellow Democrats who have to run for re-election in 2010 in a box. Satisfy the party's leftwing on Gitmo or deal responsibly with the issue.
That's not an easy choice to make. The Republicans are winning considerable support for their position to keep the Gitmo detainees out of the United States; so much so that this issue, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's obvious blunders, has pushed the torture discussion off to the side. And they have America concerned about the possible of the terrorists being brought to the United States-and that has them uncomfortable and beginning to realize it may put more than a few seats at risk to move ahead as Obama wants.
But it's not so easy for the Democrats to dismiss the other side of the issue. Consider the wrath of the anti-war left as visited on Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. In the year 2000, Al Gore picked Lieberman to be his successor as leader of the nation and the party; in 2006 his fellow Democrats ran him out of the party on a rail because of his support for the war. It is easy to imagine a senator or two going down to defeat-in a primary if not the general election-because they were insufficiently anti-war, as expressed by their failure to back Obama on closing Gitmo.
Obama needs to produce a plan, and quickly or his fellow Democrats in Congress are going to give him an even bigger "high hat"-while the Republicans stand on the sidelines and smile.
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