WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's hardest sell in his renewed push to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may be members of his own party — moderate Senate Democrats facing tough re-election bids next year in the strongly Republican South.
Obama has stepped up the pressure to shutter the naval facility, driven in part by his revised counterterrorism strategy and the 4-month-old stain of the government force-feeding Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strikes to prevent them from starving to death. Civil liberties groups and liberals have slammed Obama for failing to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to close the installation and find another home for the 166 terror suspects being held there indefinitely.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have repeatedly resisted the president's attempts to close the facility, arguing that the prisoners are too dangerous to be moved to U.S. soil, that Guantanamo is a perfectly adequate prison and that the administration has failed to offer a viable alternative.
White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco lobbied House members in advance of several votes last month to no avail. The House delivered strong votes to keep Guantanamo open and to prevent Obama from transferring detainees to Yemen. Separately, the president's recent appointment of a special envoy on Guantanamo, Cliff Sloan, has met with a collective shrug on Capitol Hill.
In the coming weeks, the Senate will again vote on the future of Guantanamo. All signs point to a bipartisan statement to keep the facility open despite a recent vow to end detention at the installation by two national security leaders — Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John McCain, R-Ariz.
"When you go out, you talk to average Americans about it, they want to keep them there, they want to keep the terrorists there, they don't necessarily want to hold them here," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a fierce proponent of keeping Guantanamo open.
Ayotte, who plans to push legislation on a sweeping defense policy bill later this summer, is likely to attract support from Republicans as well as several Democrats looking ahead to tight Senate races next year in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Votes on the detention center will give these Democrats a high-profile chance to split with a president who is extremely unpopular in parts of the South.
Consider Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in next year's congressional elections.
Last November, he was one of nine Democrats to vote for prohibiting the use of any money to transfer terror suspects from Guantanamo, backing an amendment by Ayotte. The Senate easily passed the measure, 54-41, as part of the defense policy bill.
Last month, a potential Republican challenger to Pryor, Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, was one of a handful of speakers during House debate on Guantanamo. Obama is pushing to transfer approved detainees — there are 86 — to their home countries and lift a ban on transfers to Yemen. Fifty-six of the 86 are from Yemen.
Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, pleaded with his colleagues to "ensure that terrorists at Guantanamo Bay do not escape back onto the battlefronts of the war on terror."
Asked recently whether he favors keeping Guantanamo opened or closed, Pryor said simply, "Open."
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, another Democrat who voted last year to keep the facility open, indicated she's unlikely to change her position.
"Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it," she said in a recent interview. "First of all, it's hard to imagine that people should be detained indefinitely without formal charges being brought. On the other hand, you know, some of the people there are potential serious threats to national security."
Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who faces re-election next year, also voted with Pryor and Landrieu to keep Guantanamo open. Her office had no comment on how she might vote later this summer.
Supporters of closing the installation were encouraged when the Senate Armed Services Committee produced its version of the defense policy bill last month. Pushed by Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee gave the president flexibility in dealing with the installation and its prisoners.
The bill would allow the transfer of terror suspects to the United States for detention and trial if the defense secretary decides that it's in the interest of national security and any public safety issues have been addressed. The bill also makes it easier for the president to transfer prisoners to foreign countries.
Currently, 104 of the 166 prisoners are on a hunger strike in a protest of their indefinite detention, with up to 44 strapped down each day and force-fed liquid nutrients through a nasal tube. The bill would authorize the temporary transfer of prisoners to a Defense Department medical facility in the United States to prevent the death of or significant harm to the health of a prisoner.
But the committee took no votes on the provisions, deciding to defer the inevitable debate until the full Senate considers the bill. Ayotte said she will be ready, and she expects to have significant support in the Senate to keep Guantanamo operating.
"While the president has said he wants to close Guantanamo, I don't think there's been a sufficient change of circumstance nor any plan laid out by the administration that could give members who voted against transfer last year any different assurances or any real new information other than an additional call to close Guantanamo again," Ayotte said.
McCain and Feinstein traveled to Guantanamo last month with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. They returned from the trip saying it was in the national interest to end detention at the facility and vowing to take the necessary steps to make it happen.
Yet even McCain concedes that the failure of the Obama administration to spell out an alternative hampers any push to close the facility.
"Really, honestly, they've never given us a plan," said McCain, who cited the cost of some $1.6 million per inmate as one argument for shutting the detention center.
Ayotte said she's a fiscal conservative, "but I believe that this facility is important for the safety of the nation and also to have a secure place to interrogate terrorists or terror suspects."