GWEN IFILL: President Obama’s pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center faced immediate roadblocks on Capitol Hill today.
For two views on that debate, we turn first to Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of the states where the administration has considered building a replacement prison. He joins us from Capitol Hill.
Senator Gardner, is this plan, the president’s plan, a nonstarter for you?
SEN. CORY GARDNER (R), Colorado: Well, I think it’s not obstruction from the Capitol Hill that the president is facing. It’s own law that he signed that he’s facing, a law that clearly states no dollars shall be expended on the transfer or to assist in the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees from Gitmo to the United States.
GWEN IFILL: So, your objection is not to the closure of Guantanamo, per se, but to the shifting of the detainees to somewhere else?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Well, I think there’s two separate questions.
I think Guantanamo Bay is a tailor-made facility for terrorists, and that’s where they should stay. I also recognize that the law the president signed just last month, late last year, fully states, clearly states that the president shall not spend money to assist in the transfer — transfer. So, their own law — the very law that he signed prohibits his actions of transfer.
GWEN IFILL: So, what changed in this debate, for people who have been watching it, between what President Bush believed when he left office and what President Obama is trying to do now?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Well, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I was in the state legislature in Colorado, and I was concerned about terrorists being transferred then from Guantanamo Bay to Colorado.
I made it very clearly, as a state legislator during the presidency of George W. Bush, that there could be this transfer. And so I have long held the view that we should keep the Guantanamo Bay terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, and not in our backyards in Colorado.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the price tag, because taxpayers want to know about that. It costs about $445 million to keep Guantanamo Bay open, to maintain it.
It would cost $475 million, according to the price tag the president put out today, to build a new facility. Doesn’t it make more sense just fiscally to try to build something new?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: I think there’s a lot of ways that this president could cut spending. And if the president wants to cut spending, then we can start cutting billions of dollars across federal agencies in duplicative, wasteful spending.
But for this president to say that he’s going the hide behind fiscal responsibility, and that’s what he wants to close Obama — close Guantanamo Bay for, I think that’s just a misnomer. I think he’s just trying to throw a red herring out there while he’s fulfilling a red — a campaign pledge.
GWEN IFILL: What he says is a red herring is what you suggested before, which is that there’s recidivism, that there is worry about security if you were to take the remaining prisoners and bring them to this — to our soil.
Do you know — what can you tell me about past evidence that this is true, that this exists?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Well, I think there are evidence — there is evidence of people leaving Guantanamo Bay, going back on to the battlefield. There is a recidivist count that we have seen, and it’s well-documented.
I have also heard from law enforcement officials, though. It’s not just me. It’s not just the Coloradans I interact with each and every day. It’s law enforcement. It’s their locally elected sheriffs. Over 40 sheriffs in Colorado have written a letter to the president of the United States saying, don’t bring these Guantanamo Bay detainees to Colorado.
Don’t bring terrorists back to the state. I have heard from federal law enforcement in Colorado who are very concerned about what impact this would have on local communities. And so it’s not just something that a Republican or Democrat is saying. It’s what we’re hearing from law enforcement. It’s what we’re hearing from people at town meetings and tele-town halls.
People are very concerned about the impact this would have on their community and their safety.
GWEN IFILL: Some of the president’s defenders say that he should use executive action to force this to happen, that, in fact, it’s unconstitutional for Congress to stop the president from deciding where our military assets should be deployed. What do you say to that?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Well, again, I think Congress has a right, as we did, passed a law, the president signed it, to state that no money shall be expended. We have the power of the purse. This is something the president cannot overcome.
If he tries to do it, this will be — this will end up in court, spending millions of dollars that he’s talking about saving now on a costly court battle, all because he wants to fulfill a campaign pledge. Look, the president didn’t put forward a serious plan today. He put forward eight pages worth of a document.
The iPhone user agreement is longer than eight pages. The plan that he put forward to close Guantanamo Bay is less detailed than an iPhone user agreement. I think that speaks to what the president is trying to do with more of a talking-point document than an actual plan.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Gardner, while I have you, let me ask you about something else that happened on Capitol Hill today that goes to this question of presidential prerogative, I guess.
And it’s about the naming of a Supreme Court justice or a nominating — nomination of a Supreme Court justice to succeed Antonin Scalia. Your party leader, Mitch McConnell, and the head of the Judiciary Committee have both said that they will not only not have hearings, but they won’t even meet with anybody the president sends.
If the president were to nominate a judge from Colorado, would you give them the courtesy of a meeting?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Well, look, I think the next president ought to choose the Supreme Court nominee. And I think that is only fair to the nominee themselves.
And I think that is only fair to the integrity of the Supreme Court. Now, this is a very serious issue. And I think it’s what Joe Biden stated in 1992, what Chuck Schumer stated in 2007. The next president ought to be making this decision.
GWEN IFILL: But would you personally refuse to meet any nominee, even if they were from your state?
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Well, again, I think this nominee should be chosen by the American people. And so I would like to make sure that the next president gets the opportunity to make that decision.
GWEN IFILL: I guess we will leave that there, then.
Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, thank you very much.
SEN. CORY GARDNER: Thanks for having me, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: And now we turn to a member of the Democratic leadership, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Senator Durbin, I know you heard what Senator Gardner just had to say. Is what the president proposed today, does it have a prayer?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), Illinois: Well, it appears that the Republican reaction to Guantanamo is virtually the same reaction to the Supreme Court nomination. They have just said they wouldn’t consider it.
Think about this. We have had about 800 detainees at Guantanamo since 9/11. Five hundred of them were released and transferred by President Bush, 500 of the 800. President Obama has released or transferred 147.
There are 91 left. We are spending $5 million a year to keep these 91 prisoners at Guantanamo. For what reason? We have over 500 convicted terrorists in federal prisons across America.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you the same question I just tried with Senator Gardner, which is, what is different now than happened when Senator — when President Bush, George W. Bush, said he wanted to close Guantanamo?
What is the different — what makes the difference?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, Senator McCain challenged the administration, the White House, come up with a plan on what you do with these detainees.
The president is trying to meet that with this proposal today. Now, the details have been left out in terms of where it might be, for obvious reasons. But I think, ultimately, that this is an nonstarter for the Republicans in Congress.
Just like the Supreme Court nominee, they don’t want any part of it. They don’t want to discuss it.
GWEN IFILL: But isn’t the where it might be kind of a key detail?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: It’s an important part of it.
But keep in mind, if these prisoners, detainees, are brought back to the United States and tried in our courts, they would join, as I said earlier, 500 convicted terrorists currently serving time in federal prisons. There’s been no incidents of an escape from the supermax prisons, for example, across the United States. So, it isn’t a question of safety.
I have to ask my fiscally conservative Republican friends, do you really think it’s right to spend $5 million a year on each detainee, so that you can beat your chests and have bragging rights about how tough we are?
GWEN IFILL: So, is this a moral fight we’re witnessing, or a practical fight, or neither?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I think what the president has said — and I agree with — Guantanamo has become a very negative symbol of the United States.
You see over and over again in propaganda films being used by terrorists those depictions of the early detainees in their orange jumpsuits. That is the sort of thing that inflames many people. The president is trying to put an end to that problem and that issue. And he’s trying to do it with the help of Congress, but, unfortunately, the Republicans don’t want any part of it.
GWEN IFILL: Well, what seems to inflame people — politicians domestically is the idea that the president is leaving open the possibility of using executive action to force this action. How do you argue that that is even necessary or constitutional?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I wouldn’t assume that.
You know, I think that’s taking it to an extreme by some. The president came through and said to Congress, join me in doing this together. We have seen the reaction from everybody involved. They don’t want to join the president either to fill the Supreme Court nomination or to deal with Guantanamo.
GWEN IFILL: If these — these folks are to be released from an island prison, why not — why continue to detain them at all, if they’re worthy of release?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Because some of them are dangerous. And some of them should not be released.
About 35 of 91 remaining, the president believes can be safely transferred to another country, just as President Bush did, just as President Obama did. But some of them are too dangerous. They need to be tried. They need to be incarcerated. We need to keep our country safe.
The president is not saying turn them all loose at all. He’s very careful in choosing those that could be a danger to the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Is the president suggesting actually closing Guantanamo, or merely — or just moving the problem elsewhere?
If the concern about international concerns about our treatment of these prisoners is the real one, why wouldn’t those concerns continue to exist if this supermax prison was built in your home state, even though that’s been ruled out, apparently?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Guantanamo is a symbol.
And much as we may not like, that it’s being used against us. And the president has said that over and over again. What he said is, keep America safe. Detain these prisoners where they can be held safely, but don’t continue to spend $5 million a year per prisoner to maintain Guantanamo.
GWEN IFILL: I do have to ask you what I asked — ended with Senator Gardner, which is this decision by the Republican leadership not to hold hearings, not to even hold meetings with anyone the president nominates.
This has never happened before. What’s your reaction to it?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: There is no constitutional precedent for what the Republicans announced today.
Not only did they say, we won’t consider the president’s nominee, we won’t have hearing, we won’t have a vote. Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, said, “I won’t even meet with this nominee.”
That’s never happened before in history. The Constitution, which we have sworn to uphold, is very clear when it comes to Article 2, Section 2. The president shall appoint a nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. And the Senate shall, by advice and consent, vote on that nominee.
Those are not vague words. They’re words that impose a responsibility on the Senate, which the Republican leader is ignoring.
GWEN IFILL: And we will be following that story very closely, of course.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, thank you very much.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Thank you too.