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Obama may soon be able to close Gitmo

The Senate defeats an attempt to keep Obama from closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
A holding pen used to transfer prisoners is seen at Guantanamo Bay, March 5, 2013.
A holding pen used to transfer prisoners is seen at Guantanamo Bay, March 5, 2013.

For the first time in years, supporters of closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay can point to a victory in Congress.

"It's a really big win," says Chris Anders, an attorney with the ACLU. "I think a lot of it is due to President Obama and the Defense department and the White House making very clear that this is something they are now determined to get done."

Tuesday evening, the Senate defeated an attempt by Republican New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte to add an amendment to the  2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would have barred transfers of Gitmo detainees to U.S. soil for detention, trial or medical treatment. Transfers from Gitmo have been severely restricted since the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress shortly after Republicans took back the House. The current version of the Senate defense bill lifts many of those restrictions, although the House version retains them. The bill will now go to conference, where both houses will have to hash out a compromise.

Ayotte didn't even get a simple majority for her bill--let alone the 60 votes she needed to add the amendment to the bill under an agreement reached by Senate leadership on the amendment process. Her amendment went down, 43-55. The fact that Ayotte couldn't get a majority on her side strengthens Senate Democrats' hand heading into conference.

"In some ways Kelly Ayotte did Levin and Obama a huge favor on this by having a vote and losing," Anders says.

The White House has spent the last few months making a strong push to end the restrictions on Guantanamo transfers and make it possible to close the prison. The administration has been sending its top national security officials to the Hill to make the case for changing the law, so that the facility can be shut down.

"It was really a full court press by the administration," says Anders. Among the more persuasive arguments: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel telling Congress that the Gitmo detention facility costs close to half a billion dollars a year to maintain. There are 164 detainees at Gitmo, some of whom have been there for more than a decade. The majority of the detainees--84--have been cleared for transfer.

Advocates for closing Gitmo are used to losing votes like this one. In 2009, when Democrats controlled Congress, they voted 90-6 to deny the administration funds to shut it down, after Republicans stoked fears of escaped terrorists rampaging through U.S. neighborhoods. Since then, votes to restrict Obama's ability to close Gitmo have rarely come up short.

If the Gitmo provisions survive conference, they will leave Obama with more power to realize his unfulfilled 2008 promise of closing the detention camp than he's had since his first year in office.