House Appropriations Chairman David Obey dealt a blow to President Obama Monday by rejecting his request for funding in the FY09 supplemental spending bill to shut down the military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center by early next year.
The White House requested $80 million in the FY09 war supplemental to begin moving 240 detainees out of Cuba, but Obey said Monday he stripped the funding from his bill because the administration has not presented a plan to close the facility.
"I personally favor what the administration's talking about doing, but so far as we can tell there is yet no concrete program for that," Obey said ahead of his panel's markup of the $94.2 billion supplemental Thursday. "And while I don't mind defending a concrete program, I'm not much interested in wasting my energy defending a theoretical program."
In another split with the White House, Obey expressed serious doubt that Obama's plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan will bring security to the region. Obey said he would give the administration a year to prove him wrong -- as he said he did on the Vietnam War at the outset of the Nixon administration. Obey was first elected in 1969.
"At the end of the year, he [President Nixon] did not move the policy and so I began to vote against the war," Obey said. "I'm doing the same thing in my recommendation to the full committee."
His bill would require the administration to submit a detailed plan on its progress in those two countries by next year. The bill does not set conditions on future funding, but Obey said he hoped the administration would report back with a "fish-or-cut-bait" assessment.
"Every member of Congress is going to have to use his own judgment" after viewing the White House report, Obey said. "We would, I would hope, exercise our own independent judgment."
Obey's decisions include the addition of billions of dollars to buy C-17 and C-130 cargo planes the administration didn't seek and more money than requested to secure the Mexican border and fight swine flu.
By denying the funding request for Guantanamo, Obey is circumventing any chance of a heated political battle with House Republicans, who have criticized the administration's lack of a detailed plan and voiced alarm about the possibility of transferring detainees to U.S. soil.
House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member C.W. (Bill) Young said it was a smart decision.
"I don't think we should rush," said Young, who opposes closing the facility until certain conditions are met.
The administration's funding request includes $50 million for the Defense Department to relocate detainees, as well as military and support forces stationed there. The administration wants $30 million for the Justice Department to review the detainees to determine if they need to be tried or released and pay for litigation of any cases that result from the review.
In the Senate, Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye acknowledged last week that many of his colleagues want to know the "precise plan" for closing Guantanamo before they can support the funding. The Senate panel is expected to mark up its version of the spending bill next week, aides have said.
"Well, it's not over yet," Inouye said Monday in response to Obey's decision.
Inouye added that he supports funding for closing Guantanamo "unless I am convinced otherwise."
Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has advocated closing the Guantanamo detention center but raised questions about the administration's plans, said it seemed appropriate for Congress to demand more details before appropriating the $80 million.
"It seems that the administration still doesn't have a clear plan on how it's going to shut down Guantanamo," Anders said. "It seems there was more clarity at the beginning of the administration when the president first signed the executive order [to close the detention center]."
Despite Obey's doubts on the president's plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the $94.2 billion House bill is $9.3 billion above the administration's request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, aid to Pakistan and funding to combat the swine flu.
"If we're going to try it, I want it to have the greatest possible ability to succeed," Obey said of Obama's approach to Afghanistan. "So we are providing virtually everything the president is asking for and then some in order to give him the best possible chance to succeed."
Obey's mark for the spending bill includes $500 million more than the administration's request for economic assistance to Pakistan and an additional $80 million to bolster the State Department's presence in Afghanistan.
The bill shifts $400 million requested to train and equip the Pakistan military from the Defense Department to the State Department. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman and other lawmakers have raised concerns about the military's expanding role in foreign assistance and have argued that money should come from the State Department's Foreign Military Financing program.
Obey added $2.2 billion for eight C-17 cargo planes and another $904 million for 11 smaller C-130 cargo aircraft -- none of which was sought by the White House. Obey also increased the $2.7 billion request for Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicles by $2.2 billion.
In addition, $400 million was added to the administration's request to pay for surveillance planes, helicopters and other means to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico. Obey also increased the administration's $1.5 billion request to prevent and treat swine flu by $500 million.
This article appears in the May 9, 2009, edition of National Journal Daily.