WASHINGTON (AP) — Citing the terrorist attacks in Paris, newly empowered Republican senators on Tuesday proposed restrictions on President Barack Obama's ability to transfer terror suspects out of the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the remainder of his term. The White House acknowledged that congressional action makes it difficult for Obama to fulfill his goal of closing the facility.
"Now is not the time to be emptying Guantanamo," Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference in which she warned of fresh threats, bemoaned recent releases from the U.S. naval facility to other countries and introduced far-reaching legislation.
Obama has pushed to close Guantanamo since his inauguration in January 2009, but has faced strong opposition from congressional Republicans and some Democrats who argue that the facility is the ideal location for terror suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The recent strikes in France that left 17 dead were repeatedly mentioned as Ayotte and three other GOP senators — Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Intelligence panel chairman Richard Burr and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — widely criticized the administration's drive to close Guantanamo.
"When we look at Paris and see it in real time ... anybody at Guantanamo is a legitimate source to go to" for questioning about intelligence information, Burr said.
McCain said the administration has failed to produce a plan on handling the Guantanamo population — now at 127. He said that with strong support from House Republicans, his committee would move swiftly on the bill.
Graham added that the detainees would not be let out "to plan another 9/11."
The legislation would bar transfers to Yemen for two years, suspend the transfer of high- or medium-risk terror suspects for the same period and repeal current law that has allowed the administration to transfer prisoners to foreign countries and reduce the population at Guantanamo.
The bill would prohibit transfers of terror suspects to foreign countries if there has been a confirmed case where an individual was transferred from Guantanamo and engaged in any terrorist activity.
The administration has been transferring detainees cleared for movement to other countries. Five men who were held for a dozen years without charge at Guantanamo were sent to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan for resettlement in late December.
Nearly 30 prisoners were resettled in third countries last year as part of Obama's renewed push to close the detention center.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said lawmakers in both parties "have put in place obstacles that have made it very difficult for the president to succeed in the goal that he has laid out to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay."
Responding specifically to the legislation, National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement: "The president has consistently opposed these restrictions. Congress should work with us to remove these restrictions, not pass new ones."
Administration officials said privately that the legislation would effectively end their efforts to move detainees out of the prison, especially the provision on high- or medium-risk suspects since that designation applies to all detainees, including those whose status has changed so they can be cleared for transfer.
The nation's top military leader, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said this past weekend that Guantanamo should be closed, describing it as in the national interest and calling it "a psychological scar on our national values."
In a major broadside, McCain dismissed the comments of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describing Dempsey as wrong on this issue as he was about Syrian President Bashar Assad's tenure and other national security issues. He said Dempsey's opinions carry no weight with him.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.