In a rare, bipartisan defeat for U.S. President Barack Obama, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open for the foreseeable future and forbid the transfer of any detainees to facilities in the United States.
Democrats lined up with Republicans in the 90-6 vote that came on the heels of a similar move a week ago in the House of Representatives, underscoring widespread apprehension among Obama's congressional allies over voters' strong feelings about bringing detainees to the U.S.
Obama has vowed to close the prison by January 2010, and the Senate's vote was not the final word on the matter. It will be next month at the earliest before Congress completes work on the legislation, giving the White House time pursue a compromise that would allow the president to fulfill his pledge.
Additionally, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled this week that some prisoners — but not all — can be held indefinitely at Guantanamo without being charged, thus increasing the pressure on the administration to develop a plan for the men held there.
"The president understands that his most important job is to keep the American people safe and that he is not going to make any decision or any judgment that imperils the safety of the American people," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said after the Senate vote.
Obama has not yet decided where some of the detainees will be sent, Gibbs added. A presidential commission is studying the issue.
'Guantanamo Bay was never meant to be an Ellis Island.' — Representative Lamar Smith of Texas
There was no suspense in the moments leading to the Senate vote, although Democrats manoeuvered to take political credit for denying Obama funds he sought to close the prison.
Senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii and chairman of the appropriations committee, said he initially had favoured keeping Guantanamo open until Obama produced a "coherent plan for closing the prison."
The administration asked for $80 million to close the facility. Obama promised repeatedly as a presidential candidate to shut down the prison, calling it a blot on the international image of the United States.
Rare victory for Republicans
The lopsided vote was a victory for Senate Republicans, who have recently turned their attention to Obama's foreign and terrorism-related policies after failing to make headway in criticizing his economic program.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-in-command among Democrats, pointed out that no one has ever escaped from a federal "supermax" prison and that 347 convicted terrorists are among those held in them.
That drew some support from Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who represents South Carolina.
"The idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational," he said.
Not all Republicans were thinking along the same lines.
"No good purpose is served by allowing known terrorists, who trained at terrorist training camps, to come to the U.S. and live among us," said Representative Lamar Smith of Texas. "Guantanamo Bay was never meant to be an Ellis Island."