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Senate Democrats press to close Gitmo

U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP/Brennan Linsley)

Senate Democrats on Wednesday pressed for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, saying the U.S. military facility in Cuba is an embarrassment, a liability and a costly drag on the federal government.

At a Senate Judiciary Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee hearing, Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., argued that the existence of the prison, which has held hundreds of terrorist suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., “weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies and calls into question our commitment to human rights.”

Durbin said the Obama administration should be doing more to shutter the prison but said Congress has stifled his ability to do so by enacting restrictions on detainee transfers, including a ban on transfers to the U.S. “that make it very difficult if not impossible to actually close the facility.”

“It’s time to lift those restrictions and move forward with shutting down Guantanamo,” he said. “It’s time to end this sad chapter of our history.”

Durbin said he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., met with White House officials last week to discuss what the administration is doing under existing law to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo.

Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said the cost of keeping the facility open is ballooning and is expected to exceed $550 million this year — about $100 million more than 2012.

“This is a massive waste of money,” she said. “Guantanamo contributes nothing positively. It contributes nothing that a federal prison could not do better. It contributes nothing that a federal court could not do better.”

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, pressed for the facility to remain open, saying closing it would pose logistical and security nightmares regarding what to do with the remaining 166 detainees.

“Now, we can embrace a utopian fiction that they will be sent to their home nations and somehow lay down their arms and embrace a global view of peace. I don’t think that utopian fiction has any basis in reality,” said Cruz, who was the panel’s only Republican to speak at the hearing.

“Until we are presented with a good, viable strategy for what to do with terrorists who would work night and day to murder innocent Americans, I have a hard time seeing how it is responsible to shut down our detention facilities and send these individuals home.”

Cruz also accused President Obama of pressing to close the facility on the basis the U.S. has won the war on terror, saying, “I don’t believe the facts justify that rosy assessment.”,

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., shot back at Cruz, saying the president never said — as Cruz suggested — the nation can afford to take a “holiday” from fighting terrorism.

“It is nice to make up quotes and pretend the president said something about taking a holiday from terrorism,” Leahy said. “Of course, he never said any such thing.”

The large hearing room was packed with anti-Guantanamo protesters, who interrupted the proceeding several times and heckled Cruz and two witnesses who supported keeping the facility open. Many of the protesters wore prison-style orange jumpsuits.