The GOP discovers a winning issue - Gitmo

Donald Lambro

5/13/2009 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's plan to close down the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay and move some of the most deadly terrorists in the world into the United States isn't going so well. Nervous House Democrats last week deleted his funding request for $81 million to close the prisoner-of-war camp, fearing a public backlash in their states and districts. Moreover, Republican leaders have turned the administration's idea into a lethal political weapon they have begun using against vulnerable House and Senate Democrats in preparations for the 2010 midterm elections.

The decision by Democratic leaders to drop Obama's money request was based on sound reasoning: Obama was closing the prison without a plan on where he would put what everyone agrees are very dangerous terrorists bent on killing as many Americans as they can. The White House is desperately looking for any states that are willing to house the so-called "detainees" in available prison sites, but it's getting few, if any, acceptable takers.

Democrats in droves are turning thumbs down to the idea of putting any of the Gitmo prisoners in their states, or even in the country.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus said "no way, not on my watch," while his Democratic colleague, Sen. Jon Tester, said he is "against any proposal to bring Guantanamo detainees to Montana."

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said flatly, "I wouldn't want them, and I wouldn't take them ... I don't see a solution." A member of the Appropriations Committee that must approve the money Obama wants, Nelson said the battle over funding could continue through the summer or longer.

In Virginia, one of the states under consideration to receive some of the prisoners, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner threw cold water on the proposal, saying he was "deeply concerned" about the prospects of moving them to a Marine base in his state near "a very populated area in the greater capital region." Even one of Obama's own Cabinet members fought the idea. Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now his secretary of Health and Human Services, wrote to the Pentagon earlier this year to say she opposed any prisoners being brought into her state.

With a recent Rasmussen poll showing an overwhelming 75 percent of Americans opposed to moving any terrorists into the United States, Republicans are turning the controversy into an incendiary campaign issue against House and Senate Democrats. A typical GOP broadside put out by House Republican leader John Boehner:

"Imagine waking up on a Saturday morning, sitting down for breakfast, and seeing an op-ed in your hometown newspaper where your local congressman lays out the welcome mat for terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, who personally trained some of the 9/11 hijackers."

That's what Democratic Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia did in a Washington Post op-ed approving of a plan to try the terrorists in a federal courtroom in Alexandria. "I am confident that Alexandrians will stand strong as they always have: gritting their teeth, stiffening their spines," Moran wrote.

That's not what Alexandria's mayor, William Euille, thinks. Two months ago, he said the city just across the Potomac River would be "absolutely opposed" to the idea.

One by one, the National Republican Congressional Committee has been lobbing similar political broadsides at key House Democrats in their districts, challenging them to "take a stand" on the issue. The headline on a typical press release sent into Democratic Rep. Chet Edward's district: "Edwards fails to protect Texans from getting terrorists as neighbors."

Or this release aimed at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: "Where does Gabby Giffords stand on keeping terrorists out of Arizona?"

House Republicans have also introduced the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act, which forbids moving any of the Guantanamo prisoners into the United States -- adding another pressure point on Democrats hoping to sidestep the issue for as long as possible.

But this issue isn't going away anytime soon, and Republicans are more than happy to keep it going into next year's elections. Obama has put Democrats into an uncomfortable position from which there is no easy exit -- though some Democrats privately talk of keeping Guantanamo open, at least until after next year's elections.

Meantime, Republican leaders continue to pound the president and his party on an issue that is gaining traction and shows signs that it is hurting Democrats.

"The American people want to keep the terrorists at Guantanamo out of their neighborhoods and off the battlefield," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech last week.

"At this point, the only way we can assure them that neither one of these things will occur is for the administration to keep this secure facility open until it develops a sensible plan for the Congress to evaluate," he said.

For now, however, the only sensible plan is to keep this prison facility open and its prisoners far from our shores.