Guantanamo: Minority GOP Wielding Major Power

In Congress, Republicans have found that even with their shrunken minority, wielding the word "terrorists" can still make Democrats roll over and do their bidding. Recent GOP warnings about terrorists being sent to "Yourtown, U.S.A." got Democrats to oppose their president; the war funding bill denies Obama money to close Guantanamo.

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President Obama's deadline for shutting the prison at Guantanamo Bay is just seven months away, yet the war-funding bill Congress sent to the president this past week contains not one dime of the $80 million he requested to shutter the facility. Warnings from Republicans on the prospect of detainees being transferred to the U.S. have left Democrats scrambling for political cover.

It's a vulnerability the GOP continues to use to its advantage, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it's not enough that all but six Democrats joined his fellow Republicans in removing the money for the Guantanamo shutdown from the war-funding bill. That bill's only in effect until the end of September. McConnell would rather keep that prison open indefinitely. It's a point he uses frequently to hammer Democrats on the Senate floor.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Keeping these terrorists locked up at Guantanamo and trying them using military commissions is the best way to deliver justice while protecting the American people.

WELNA: Many Republicans think President Obama made a political blunder by promising two days after taking office that he'd shut down Guantanamo within a year. After all, President Bush had said for years that he wanted to close Guantanamo. California congressman Darrell Issa says he and his fellow Republicans are simply pointing out the obvious - that closing Guantanamo is easier said than done.

Representative DARRELL ISSA (Democrat, California): As the president sees it's hard to a certain extent, he begins looking like President Bush, who was blamed for not doing things which turn out to be hard.

WELNA: Making things even hard for the president, congressional Democrats appear to have been swayed further by Republicans sounding the alarm on Guantanamo. On Thursday, in a move that would extend restrictions on Guantanamo into next year, Democrats on a House Appropriations panel approved a Republican measure. It would bar the transfer of detainees to any U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico or American Samoa. That was after another House panel said no to a request by the Justice Department for $60 million to set up detainee trials. And this past week, the House Armed Services Committee approved a measure withholding all funds for closing down Guantanamo until President Obama submits a detailed plan for doing so.

Ike Skelton is that panel's Democratic chairman.

Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri): The president, of course, has stated that he wants to close Guantanamo, which I happen to support, but I'd also like to know how it's going to be done. There's some detainees that are going to be with us a long time and we want to make sure that they're risk free, that the American people are risk free of wherever they go.

WELNA: On Thursday, House Republicans forced a vote on an amendment blocking President Obama from spending any funds on closing down Guantanamo by the deadline he's set.

Unidentified Man: On this vote, the yays are 212, the nays are 213. The amendment is not agreed to.

WELNA: In a chamber where Democrats hold 78 more seats than Republicans, the ruling party barely managed to defeat the measure. Thirty-nine Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with all but two of the chamber's Republicans. Most of those Democrats occupy seats previously held by Republicans.

Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank is not one of them, but he sympathizes with their decision to vote for such an amendment.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): The Republicans are trying to use this to have a 60 second hand against a Democrat from a more vulnerable district. He voted to let terrorists come into your community without noticing, yeah, well, he voted to let terrorists to come into a maximum-security prison. That's the nature of politics today, unfortunately.

WELNA: Frank says if that's to change, Democrats will have to convince the American public that U.S. prisons can safely handle those still being held along the southeastern shore of Cuba.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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