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Why Democrats buckled to GOP fears on Guantánamo

The Senate denied Obama the money to shut down the prison, in part because Democrats didn't want to be seen as soft on terrorism.

By Staff writer / May 20, 2009

Under the gaze of Hunter Summer, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee from 1931-1947, FBI Director Robert Mueller talks with House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 20, 2009.

Harry Hamburg/AP

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Washington

Wednesday's 90-to-6 vote in the Senate to block the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility followed a weeks-long Republican blitz, which argued that closing the military prison would “release deadly terrorists in American neighborhoods."

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The issue comes at a time when many Democrats believe they have begun to chip away at the GOP's decades-long status as the trusted party on security issues. Some Democratic senators worried that closing Guantánamo – in the absence of a credible plan from the White House – might undermine that progress, allowing Republicans to cast them as soft on terror.

Democrats at first dismissed the argument. But by Wednesday, all but six Democrats voted with a united GOP caucus to strip $80 million earmarked for the closure of Guantánamo. It had been part of a $91.3 billion defense supplemental bill to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It became NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] on steroids,” says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

The vote coincides with a new poll that shows Democrats at parity with Republicans on the issue of national security for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Some 64 percent of likely voters approve of the job President Obama is doing on national security – six points higher than the president’s overall job-approval rating, according to a poll released Monday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps, which are Democratic pollsters.

By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Americans say that Mr. Obama is doing better on national security than his predecessor, President Bush. "This survey signals a possible generational shift in attitudes that could have broad electoral consequences, depriving Republicans of one of their last remaining advantages just when their image has dropped to an all-time low relative to the Democrats,” the report concludes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, for one, has been an outspoken critic of Guantánamo. “Guantánamo has been a symbol of abuse and disregard for the rule of law for too long,” she said Wednesday.

Yet she voted against the line item to provide $80 million for closing Guantánamo. She cited public concerns that the president would release terrorists in US neighborhoods. Obama has yet to present a plan to show how the transition from Guantánamo would work, she said.