Congress Passes Bill That Might Make It Even Harder to Close Guantanamo

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GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - OCTOBER 27:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by U.S. Military prior to transmission.) A roll of protective wire rings a detainee camp inside the U.S. military prison for "enemy combatants" on October 27, 2009 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Although U.S. President Barack Obama pledged in his first executive order last January to close the infamous prison within a year's time, the government has been struggling to try the accused terrorists and to transfer them out ahead of the deadline. Military officials at the prison point to improved living standards and state of the art medical treatment available to detainees, but the facility's international reputation remains tied to the "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding employed under the Bush administration.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Seven years later, it's still open. Photo: John Moore/2009 Getty Images

Barack Obama vetoed Congress’s first attempt at an annual defense policy bill last month — his fifth veto ever — and now Congress is trying again. The Senate just passed a new $607 billion National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday, 91–3; the House passed the same amended legislation last week, 370–58. 

The new bill deals with some of Obama’s quibbles about domestic spending, sequestration budget caps, and war spending — and is $5 billion lighter than its last, failed iteration — and the White House is expected to approve it, especially given the overwhelming, veto-proof support it has won in Congress this time around. However, that doesn’t mean Obama has to like it — and given the fact that the bill also prohibits transferring any Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., adding a new obstruction to his plan to close the detention facility, it seems likely this won’t go on his list of favorite laws.

Bernie Sanders was the only presidential candidate to vote on the legislation — he was one of the few votes against it. All of the Republican presidential hopefuls are in Wisconsin getting ready for tonight’s debate.

The new legislation would also bar the U.S. from transferring detainees to Yemen, Somalia, or Libya. When Obama vetoed the last defense appropriations bill, he noted his opposition to the Guantanamo language as a reason for nixing it. Senator John McCain, who supports closing Guantanamo, says he doesn’t think Obama will veto this bill over the detention facility. “I don’t think so,” he said, according to The Hill. “They shouldn’t. It would be a very weak argument because I’ve asked them for a plan and they haven’t given me a plan.”

There are still 112 detainees at Guantanamo, and Obama has a little more than a year left in his term. Many observers thought the president would release a plan to finally close the facility — one of his first campaign promises — in the upcoming weeks. 

Congress still needs to figure out how to appropriate money for defense and all other federal agencies. Money will run out on December 11; if an omnibus appropriations bill isn’t approved by then, Americans will get a government shutdown just in time for the holidays.  

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “What the president does believe though is that there are a number of provisions in the NDAA that are important to running and protecting the country. So that’s why I would expect you’d see the president sign the NDAA when it comes to his desk, whenever it comes to his desk. That certainly does not reflect a change in our position, or the intensity of our position, about the need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.”

A day earlier, Earnest said that the White House wasn’t planning to use executive action alone to close Guantanamo. But he also stressed that he wasn’t saying it wasn’t either — meaning that anything might happen in the next year. “I’m not aware of any ongoing effort to devise a strategy using only the president’s executive authority,” he said. “But I certainly wouldn’t, as I mentioned last week, take that option off the table.”