WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Expected Republican gains in Congress in next month’s elections will further stymie President Barack Obama’s efforts to try terrorism suspects in criminal courts and make it harder to close the U.S. military prison at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay.
For months the White House has been in a stalemate with lawmakers over where to try detainees held at Guantanamo, including the accused plotters of the September 11, 2001 attacks like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with no resolution in sight.
Polls show Obama’s fellow Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives and maintain only a narrow majority in the Senate, leading to what one professor predicted would be “super gridlock” in Washington on key issues.
“I personally think they’re going to lose the House and once they do that, I think that’s the end of their hopes of criminal trials rather than the military courts,” said Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. “I just don’t know how they move forward.”
Opposition from Republicans in Congress has prevented Obama from making good on a campaign promise to close the Guantanamo detention camp, which has been condemned by civil liberties groups for the mistreatment of Islamist militant detainees.
As well as bringing suspects to the United States for trial, the White House wants to try many of them in criminal, rather than military, courts. But that has also met opposition in Congress and will become more difficult if Republicans do well at the midterm elections, as expected.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said there was little support for bringing the terrorism suspects to U.S. soil “and in this election, no one, no one is running on a platform of bringing terrorists into the U.S.”
Republicans have demanded Guantanamo suspects be given military trials which limit their legal rights. They, along with a few Democrats and New York state officials, objected to prosecuting Mohammed and other key suspects in a federal court in the heart of New York, forcing the White House to shelve those plans and creating the stalemate.
Only one suspect from Guantanamo, Ahmed Ghailani, has been brought to U.S. soil for trial. His case in New York began on a rocky note when the judge barred a witness from testifying because he was located as a result of coerced interviews.
Republicans have seized on that ruling as a sign that the criminal courts cannot deal with terrorism suspects.
With the economy struggling and Republicans likely to try to repeal Obama’s landmark healthcare act, terrorism trials have not taken precedence at the White House.
Civil liberties groups have repeatedly urged the White House and Justice Department to press ahead with trying the suspects in criminal courts regardless of the election outcome and say they must go on the offense to make their case.
“Whoever controls each house (of Congress), this issue is going to require continued and probably increased engagement by the Obama administration,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
While Obama could issue White House orders to try to press ahead with criminal trials and empty the Guantanamo prison that could give Republicans an opening to attack him on national security matters going into the 2012 presidential campaign.
“This is not going to be a Republican Congress in any mood to compromise,” Sabato said.
Administration officials argue the Guantanamo prison serves as a recruiting tool for anti-American militants around the world because of the harsh interrogations that took place there. Republicans counter that it is the safest place to imprison and try the suspects.
There are 174 detainees at Guantanamo prison, most of whom are waiting to be sent overseas, and about 44 awaiting trials.
White House and Justice Department officials declined to comment on new plans for terrorism trials beyond pointing to past statements that such suspects have been successfully prosecuted in criminal courts numerous times.
Editing by Eric Walsh