WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 90-6 Wednesday to strip money from emergency-spending legislation to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility, a clear concession by Democrats that they lacked the political muscle to shutter the prison.
A Senate committee last week proposed spending $80 million from the $91.3 billion war spending measure to begin the closing process, but Wednesday's vote eliminated that money.
Senate Democrats said they weren't necessarily giving up on closing the facility and moving its 241 detainees elsewhere, even as Republicans argue that it should stay open.
An amendment to the spending bill, which is likely to be similarly approved by the House of Representatives, prevents the Obama administration from releasing any freed detainees into the United States or transferring any of them to prisons in the U.S.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
The Guantanamo Bay facility has been sharply criticized because the vast majority of detainees have been held for years without being formally charged. Moreover, for some, the evidence of their wrongdoing is uncorroborated or was obtained by the use of harsh interrogation techniques and therefore inadmissible in civilian courts.
Wednesday's decision to cut the funds "is not a referendum on closing Guantanamo," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. "Instead, it should serve as a reality check, since at this time the administration has not yet forwarded a coherent plan for closing this prison."
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who voted against eliminating the money, blasted the Republican Party as pushing the debate over Guantanamo too far, too fast.
"President Obama has not yet presented his plan for closing Guantanamo to the Congress or the American people," Durbin said. Obama plans a speech about the facility Thursday.
"When he does," Durbin said, "we're sure going to have plenty of opportunity to debate it. This bill . . . is not the right place for this debate. This is not the right time."
Obama has said he wants the prison to close by Jan. 22, 2010, but he hasn't outlined a plan to do so.
Republicans have been saying for weeks that the detainees would wind up in U.S. prisons, and they wouldn't let up Wednesday, charging that Democrats were eager to bring suspected terrorists into the United States and thus threaten neighborhoods around the nation.
"We should not, I believe, let this attorney general or anyone else brand these terrorists as victims worthy of living in the United States of America," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
The Republicans also maintained that Guantanamo works.
"They ought to be held right where they are," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., "in a place that is safe and secure, that is state of the art, where they receive the very best of treatment, where no one has ever escaped, hundreds of miles from American communities and neighborhoods."
The Senate Appropriations Committee, dominated by Democrats, approved $80 million last week for the Pentagon and Justice departments to take steps that would lead to closing the prison.
The bill had included $50 million for the Defense Department to "support the relocation and disposition of detainees," but it specified that they must be relocated outside the United States, and the money would be available only after Defense Secretary Robert Gates submitted a plan for its use. The measure also would have barred other government agencies from using other money to bring detainees to this country.
The House of Representatives wouldn't go along, however, and after relentless pressure from Republicans, the Senate's Democratic leaders relented Tuesday and agreed to strip the funds from the bill. They left a door open to reconsider the decision, though.
"Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."
The Senate is expected to pass the spending bill later this week. It provides about $90 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as $1.5 billion to help fight swine flu.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY