Obama’s Last Guantanamo Pitch to Congress

In his first week as president, Barack Obama ordered his new administration to close Guantanamo Bay, the prison whose operation he once described as a “sad chapter in history.” Now, with a few months left in office, Obama is making one of his final attempts to convince Congress to close the book on the facility for good.

The Pentagon is expected to send a plan to Congress on Tuesday that outlines the closure of the detention camp in Cuba, which was established in January 2002 to house suspected foreign terrorists detained in the war on terrorism. The plan meets a provision in the current National Defense Authorization Act, approved in November, which directed the administration to send lawmakers within 90 days a “comprehensive strategy” for holding current and future detainees.

Obama will deliver a statement on Guantanamo from the White House at 10:30 a.m. EST.

There are 91 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, according to a New York Times database. Since 2009, 680 prisoners have been returned to their home countries or resettled in countries that were willing to take them—in all, 57 nations. The majority have gone to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Last month, the prisoner population dipped below 100 for the first time since the facility opened. Of the prisoners remaining, 35 have been cleared for release, deemed to no longer be a threat to national security.

The Obama administration wants to transfer some of the remaining prisoners to detention facilities in the United States. But current law prohibits the use of government funds to transfer prisoners to American soil and the construction of facilities to house them, and the Republican-controlled Congress has shown no interest in relenting on the matter. While Obama has an ally in former presidential rival Senator John McCain, who has long called for the closure of Guantanamo, congressional leaders have vowed to keep the prison open. Days after taking office last fall, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Guantanamo prisoners should remain there, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last month called Guantanamo “the perfect place for terrorists.”​

The latest defense legislation also imposed new restrictions on transfers to countries whose security situations are considered unstable to accept former suspected terrorists, including Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

Most of the plan is expected to focus on the cost of transferring detainees to the U.S. The Associated Press reported Tuesday morning that the administration will propose housing detainees in a facility that would require up to $475 million in construction costs. The administration has hoped that as the prisoner population dwindles, the annual cost to taxpayers of maintaining a facility built to house hundreds—which in 2013, was $454 million—would convince lawmakers that keeping it open isn’t worth it. The remaining prisoners at Guantanamo are outnumbered by the 2,000 or so guards and prison staff at the facility, according to The Miami Herald. The administration is expected to say that a U.S. facility will save as much as $180 million each year in operating costs.

Last year, the Pentagon scouted federal prisons in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Charleston, South Carolina, as well as state and federal facilities in Florence, Colorado, as potential sites to house detainees.

Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, has said his panel would hold a hearing on a closure plan. Some Republican lawmakers feel Obama will act unilaterally to close the prison in the coming months as the president enters legacy mode, trying to check off the boxes on his list of campaign promises. The administration has taken minimal pains to assuage those concerns.

But legacy mode is a busy season. The closure plan faces stiff competition for attention with the debate over the nomination of a Supreme Court justice and the presidential race, where Republican frontrunners have suggested adding prisoners to Guantanamo, not emptying it.