US President Barack Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by early 2010 hit a snag as his Democratic Senate allies moved to deny him 80 million dollars he sought for that purpose.
Democrats on Tuesday joined Republicans who have warned for weeks that Obama lacks a plan for dealing with the facility’s 240 detainees from 30 countries, and argued against imprisoning, trying or freeing any of them on US soil.
"The money was sought prematurely," because the president has yet to present a clear strategy for deciding the prisoners’ fate, said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Although about 80 of the detainees have been singled out for prosecution, the fate of those who have been convicted and sentenced to prison remains unclear.
The White House promised that Obama would unveil "a hefty part" of his plan for closing the facility, a global symbol of US "war on terror" excesses, in a speech Thursday.
"We agree with Congress that, before resources, they should receive a more detailed plan," presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the US Congress needed to set aside at least a "small amount" of money or it would be "exceedingly difficult" to shutter the facility by Obama’s self-imposed January 22, 2010 deadline.
Obama had asked for 80 million dollars to shutter the facility as part of a massive supplemental spending plan to pay for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through October 1 and provide emergency aid to Pakistan.
The House of Representatives did not include the money in its 96.7-billion-dollar version of the bill, and the Senate was poised to remove it from its 91.3-billion-dollar version through an amendment expected to pass Wednesday.
The overall legislation could clear the Congress as early as this week despite the pitched political battle over those held at the US naval base in southeastern Cuba, many without charge, after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"Guantanamo makes us less safe," said Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, as Republicans savored a political victory on national security, for decades one of their party’s strengths.
"However, this is neither the time nor the bill to deal with this. Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States."
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the vote.
"I’m pleased the majority has recognized that the president’s policy of putting an arbitrary deadline on the closing of Guantanamo is a mistake," he said, but warned that Republicans expect the administration to seek funding again to close the facililty.
"This issue is not totally behind us," McConnell said.
Democrats and some Republicans, including Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, say the facility serves as a recruiting tool for Islamist extremists.
McConnell and other Republicans have argued that US prisons are ill-suited for holding terrorists, and that the Obama administration has so far failed to convince US allies and other nations to take in many detainees.
Feinstein rejected a central piece of the Republican argument, saying that there are already extremists and other dangerous criminals at maximum security US prisons "from which no one has ever escaped".
"God knows we have the facilities that can house them safely and apart from anyone’s neighborhood, community or anything else," she said, dismissing Republican warnings of extremists walking US streets as "just a lot of bull".
But Feinstein acknowledged the political power of the argument, saying: "It’s a problem because it gets people upset."
Obama has set up a review of the detainees’ cases, while appealing to US allies to take in some of the prisoners who cannot be returned to their home countries.