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Proposal To Shutter Gitmo May Roil Relations Between White House And Congress

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The White House says Congress will soon get what's being called a carefully considered thoughtful proposal to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The plan would transfer some detainees from the prison to the U.S., but it might have trouble in Congress. The House just passed a bill barring such transfers. Joining me to talk about this is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. And David, why is this happening now? In mean, it's been almost seven years since President Obama promised to close Guantanamo.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, in part, I think it's because of the bill that the House passed today. It's a big annual defense bill, and part of it demands that such a plan be sent to Congress within 90 days. But this is also the plan that people like Senator John McCain, who's the Republican Armed Services Committee chairman and who would like to see the place closed, have long been demanding. Here's what McCain had to say about it the other day.

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JOHN MCCAIN: I've told him for six-and-a-half years, send me a plan, and I will - if I agree with it,

I'll support it. They have never sent us a plan.

WELNA: So what I'm hearing is that Obama is sending a plane that's essentially saying, folks, these inmates are costing us about $3 million a year each to keep them there. There are only 112 of them who remain there out of nearly 800 who were taken there over the past 14 years.

MCEVERS: I mean, so what is supposed to happen to these 112 inmates who are still there?

WELNA: Well, nearly half of them have been cleared for release if the U.S. can find countries to receive them. The rest are some five dozen detainees considered too dangerous to release but who, for the most part, cannot be prosecuted. Obama wants to put them in either a military or a civilian prison in the U.S.

MCEVERS: And we talked about how the House just voted against such transfers. I mean, how likely is it that Obama's plan is going to get through Capitol Hill?

WELNA: Well, the chances are not very good. After all, the big defense bill the House passed explicitly forbids any funds from being spent to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. or to build or modify facilities here to house them. The president has not said he'll veto that bill. And the Pentagon has, in the past few months, been checking out maximum-security prisons in South Carolina, Colorado and Kansas as possible destinations for Guantanamo captives. This afternoon at the Capitol, Kansas Republican senator Pat Roberts joined colleagues from those other states to make clear they'll fight any plan sending these detainees their way.

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PAT ROBERTS: We are not going to have terrorists from GTMO come to Ft. Leavenworth, the intellectual center of the Army, or any other location in the United States. That will not work. We will not let that happen.

MCEVERS: This does not sound like this is going to be easy-going in Congress.

WELNA: Well, yeah, I don't think so even though Senator McCain says he'll try to change his fellow Republicans' minds on this if the plan looks acceptable to him. And White House spokesman Josh Earnest is already signaling president's willingness to simply bypass Congress.

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JOSH EARNEST: We would like to work with Congress where we can, but if Congress continues to refuse, I wouldn't rule out the president using every element of his authority to make progress in the same way that he's done that in other areas where Congress has refused to work constructively with the administration.

MCEVERS: I mean, is there anything that would prevent the president from doing this, from acting on his own to close Guantanamo?

WELNA: Well, I think a lot of members of Congress would say that the law prevents him from doing that. It's - and, you know, it's not clear just how the president could use his executive powers to get around that law. Some legal experts say such a move could involve using the federal courts to bring those who can't be placed abroad to the U.S. As for whether the president would be willing to make such a move - I think if he doesn't do something like that right now, he may be unable to keep his promise to close Guantanamo.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's national security correspondent David Welna. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.