Political Barriers Stand Between Obama and Closing Guantanamo Facility

Michael Catalini
National Journal

The last time President Obama tried to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, Congress stopped him abruptly. The Senate did what it rarely does: It voted in bipartisan fashion, blocking his attempt at funding the closure.

Four years later, and the political barriers that blocked the president from closing the camp that now houses 166 detainees are as immovable as ever. Moving the prisoners to facilities in the U.S., a solution the administration suggested, proved to be a political minefield in 2009. Most Americans oppose closing the base, according to a polls, and congressional leaders have balked at taking action.

The Cuban camp is grabbing headlines again because of a hunger strike among the detainees. Nearly 100 have stopped eating, and the military is forcing them to eat by placing tubes through their noses, the Associated Press reported. The president reconfirmed his opposition to the camp, responding to a question about the recent hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay with regret in his voice.

“Well, it is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo, which is why, when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo. I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo,” he said.

Obama blamed his failure to follow through on a campaign promise on lawmakers. “Now, Congress determined that they would not let us close it,” he said. Despite Obama’s desire to close the base and his pledge this week to “go back to this,” he touched on a political reality: Lawmakers are not inclined to touch the issue.

"The president stated that the reason Guantanamo has not closed was because of Congress. That's true," Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters last month, declining to elaborate.

The stakes for Obama on this issue are high when it comes to his liberal base, who would like to see him display the courage of his convictions and close the camp. But the political will is lacking, outside a small contingent of lawmakers, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and five other liberal Democrats who sided with Obama in 2009, and left-leaning opinion writers.

Congressional Democrats, unlike Obama, will have to face voters again. And closing the camp is deeply unpopular. A Washington Post/ABC Newspoll in February 2012 showed that 70 percent of Americans wantedto keep the camp open to detain “terrorist suspects,” and in a 2009 Gallup Poll, a majority said they would be upset if it shut down. In 2009, the Senate voted 90-6 to block the president’s efforts at closing the camp. Obama had signed an order seeking to close the detention center, but the Senate’s vote denied the administration the $80 million needed to fund the closure. 

Closing the camp in Cuba and bringing the detainees into the United States grates against the political sensibilities of many lawmakers. Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as Reid’s spokesman at the time, remembers the debate very well.

“I'm still not sure that there's much of an appetite among Democrats on the Hill to try and deal with this issue once and for all,” Manley said in an interview.