President Barack Obama launched a final push on Tuesday (local time) to persuade Congress to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but lawmakers, opposed to rehousing detainees in the United States, declared his plan a non-starter.
In White House remarks, Obama, a Democrat, pleaded with the Republican-led Congress to give his proposal a "fair hearing". He said he did not want to pass along the issue to his successor next January.
The Pentagon plan proposes 13 potential sites on US soil for the transfer of remaining detainees but does not identify the facilities or endorse a specific one.
“We’ll review President Obama’s plan," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "But since it includes bringing dangerous terrorists to facilities in US communities, he should know that the bipartisan will of Congress has already been expressed against that proposal.”
Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said Obama had yet to convince Americans that moving the prisoners to the United States was smart or safe.
Obama pledged to close the prison as a candidate for the White House in 2008. The prisoners were rounded up overseas when the United States became embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The facility in years past came to symbolise aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to allegations of torture.
"Let us go ahead and close this chapter," Obama said.
"Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values ... It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law," he said.
Obama is considering taking unilateral executive action to close the facility, situated in a U.S. naval station in southeast Cuba, if Congress does not vote to allow transfers to the United States. Republicans oppose any executive order.
The White House has sought to buttress its argument for closing the prison by focusing on its high cost. Obama said nearly $450 million was spent last year alone to keep it running. The new plan would be cheaper, officials said
The transfer and closure costs would be US$290 million to US$475 million, an administration official told reporters, while housing remaining detainees in the United States would be US$65 million to US$85 million less expensive than at the Cuba facility, meaning the transfer bill would be offset in 3 to 5 years.
The prison, which Obama said once held nearly 800 detainees, now houses 91 detainees. Some 35 prisoners will be transferred to other countries this year, leaving the final number below 60, officials said.
Obama noted that his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, transferred hundreds of prisoners out of Guantanamo and wanted to close it. Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's 2008 presidential opponent and a former prisoner of war during US involvement in Vietnam, also wanted it shut.
The plan would send detainees who have been cleared for transfer to their homelands or third countries and transfer remaining prisoners to US soil to be held in maximum-security prisons. Congress has banned such transfers to the United States since 2011.
Though the Pentagon has previously noted some of the sites it surveyed for use as potential US facilities, the administration wants to avoid fueling any political outcry in important swing states before the November 8 presidential election.