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Senate Compromise Could Help Obama Close Guantanamo Bay Prison


Let's turn now to one well-known prison and efforts to shut it down. President Obama vowed to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during his first year in office. Here in 2015, he was still making that pledge in the State of the Union address.


US PRES BARACK OBAMA: Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it is time to finish the job, and I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are. It's time to close Gitmo.


GREENE: Many Republican lawmakers do not agree with that, and defense spending bills being voted on this week are loaded with restrictions, making it even harder to close the prison. There is one prominent Republican pushing for a deal to break this impasse, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Of the 122 captives still in Guantanamo, nearly half have been cleared for release, but Congress won't let them into the U.S. and it's making harder to send them elsewhere. So Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and former prisoner of war John McCain is offering President Obama a deal in the defense policy bill now on the Senate floor. Basically, it says show us a plan.

SEN JOHN MCCAIN: If that plan is approved, the Congress would provide the president the authority to proceed with the closure of the facility.

WELNA: McCain says he's met with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and White House counterterrorism chief Lisa Monaco to discuss this deal.

MCCAIN: Secretary Carter and Ms. Monaco came over to my office after he and I met and said that they were going to have a plan. I said good.

WELNA: Asked earlier this week about whether those officials were indeed coming up with a plan for closing Guantanamo, the most White House spokesman Josh Earnest would say was this...


JOSH EARNEST: This is an effort that we have doggedly pursued, even in the face of strident opposition from members of Congress.

WELNA: On Capitol Hill, the president's fellow party members think anything he'd propose would be dead on arrival. Dick Durbin is the Senate's number two Democrat.

SEN DICK DURBIN: It's, I think, naive to believe that the president will make any proposal in a controversial subject like Guantanamo which will get the approval of a Republican Congress.

WELNA: Indeed Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions says he for one would never support a Guantanamo shutdown plan.

SEN JEFF SESSIONS: It's a terrible mistake to close it. The president made an improvident, unwise campaign promise in - despite all facts to the contrary, he's determined to try to accomplish that.

WELNA: Earlier this week, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler sponsored two amendments to the annual defense spending bill that the House passed yesterday. Both would remove restrictions on detainee transfers.


REP JERROLD NADLER: We must close this facility, try these people, condemn and punish the guilty, release the innocent and restore our national honor.

WELNA: Both of Nadler's amendments were rejected in near party-line votes. Still, armed services chairman McCain insists there is a way for President Obama to win approval in this Republican Congress for a shutdown plan. The key, McCain says, is making sure any detainees transferred to the U.S. don't acquire the same rights afforded everyone else.

MCCAIN: It would have to be under the military jurisdiction, which would then put it outside of the protection of U.S. judicial system.

WELNA: But legal experts doubt that military courts in the U.S. would be any more effective than a military commission tribunal's been in Guantanamo. Alberto Mora is the Navy's former general counsel. He says federal courts in the U.S. have proven far more effective in both trying and convicting accused terrorists.

ALBERTO MORA: There've been more than 500 convictions for terrorist activities as opposed to the eight or so in the military commission system. So the military commission system is a proven failure over the last 12 years.

WELNA: There's an even bigger problem in the deal offering a vote on a shutdown plan. The White House is now threatening to veto the defense bill it's a part of, due in part to its onerous Guantanamo provisions. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.