Off Track: Senate Democrats Block Funding To Close GITMO After White House Left Them High And Dry

We reported earlier that the Senate voted overwhelmingly this afternoon to strip the funding for the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay from a supplemental war spending bill.

The move has angered many. It comes a day after Senate Democrats announced they would withhold the money until the White House settles on a comprehensive plan for dealing with detainees–and critics on the left are charging that Democratic leaders have caved to Republican scare tactics.

That’s certainly part of the story–but a bigger problem, according to several sources, has been the White House’s failure, for months, to co-ordinate strategy and messaging on the issue with Congress, where the bulk of opposition to the plan lies.“Congress, on the legislative calendar, got ahead of Obama on this,” says Ken Gude, who focuses on Guantanamo as associate director for the Center for American Progress.”They’ve established their task forces they’re working on their own timeline and the timelines didn’t match.”

According to Gude, “it’s the kind of problem you have when you have two different tracks moving, but not at the same rate.”

On his first day in office, President Obama signed an executive order calling for the detention facility to be shuttered within a year. Four months later, strategists and Hill staffers say the White House didn’t follow through. According to one strategist who advises Democrats on this issue, “things kind of got lost a little in the period between when the executive order was signed and today. There wasn’t much direction from the White House to Capitol Hill. There was a breakdown between the White House and Congress.”

What happened next will come as no surprise to students of Washington politics. Republicans rushed to fill the ensuing leadership void, and high-jacked the issue entirely. They have insisted for months now that closing the Guantanamo prison is the first step in a process that will result in terrorists walking American streets, and Democrats have met those charges with silence. (A day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ceded rhetorical ground to the GOP–“we will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States”–Senate Republicans released a memo headlined “Meet Your New Neighbor, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad?” Reid has since clarified his position, calling Obama’s approach the right one.)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)–who supports closing the facility–had some harsh words, too. “The lack of a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan led to a predictable political backlash on Guantanamo,” McCain said. “Instead of unifying Americans behind a plan that keeps us safe and honors our values, the administration’s course of action has unified the opposition to moving forward and move forward we must.”

That doesn’t get the dynamic exactly right, but it’s close. President Obama will deliver a national security address tomorrow, in which he’s expected to defend the administration’s plan and recommit to its deadline. Looking forward, a White House task force is expected to complete a full report on closing the facility by July. And that, Gude says, should keep the administration on track to get the job done by winter.

“It’s important to recognize that this money was not necessary to do the kind of things Obama needs to do in the short term to close Guantanamo.”

One of those things might involve an explanation from FBI Director Robert Mueller of his statement before the House Judiciary Committee today. “The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalizing others [and] the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States,” Mueller said, referring to the supposed risk of moving Guantanamo detainees into U.S. prisons.

The National Security Network–a progressive think tank and strategy shop–has put together a detailed list of terrorists sitting harmlessly in U.S. custody and, in recent days, politicians have insisted that high security facilities in their states would be perfectly safe places to keep the inmates.

All of which is to say that Senate Democrats didn’t have to do things this way–even public opinion is on their side–but that their decision also emerged from a greater context,

Guantanamo isn’t the only issue on which the White House and Senate leaders have been out of sync recently. Last week I reported that a similar leadership vacuum is responsible for the long wait Dawn Johnsen has had to endure as Democrats struggle to come up with the 60 votes they’ll need to overcome a filibuster before they can confirm her to run the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.