As a result, officials now believe that they are unlikely to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer its population of terrorism suspects until 2011 at the earliest — a far slower timeline for achieving one of President Obama’s signature national security policies than they had previously hinted.
While Mr. Obama has acknowledged that he would miss the Jan. 22 deadline for closing the prison that he set shortly after taking office, the administration appeared to take a major step forward last week when he directed subordinates to move “as expeditiously as possible” to acquire the Thomson Correctional Center, a nearly vacant maximum-security Illinois prison, and to retrofit it to receive Guantánamo detainees.
But in interviews this week, officials estimated that it could take 8 to 10 months to install new fencing, towers, cameras and other security upgrades before any transfers take place. Such construction cannot begin until the federal government buys the prison from the State of Illinois.
The federal Bureau of Prisons does not have enough money to pay Illinois for the center, which would cost about $150 million. Several weeks ago, the White House approached the House Appropriations Committee and floated the idea of adding about $200 million for the project to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year, according to administration and Congressional officials.
But Democratic leaders refused to include the politically charged measure in the legislation. When lawmakers approved the bill on Dec. 19, it contained no financing for Thomson.
The administration will probably not have another opportunity until Congress takes up a supplemental appropriations bill for the Afghanistan war. Lawmakers are not likely to finish that bill until late March or April.
Moreover, the administration now says that the current focus for Thomson financing is the appropriations legislation for the 2011 fiscal year. Congress will not take that measure up until late 2010.
Frustrated by the difficulties in obtaining financing from Congress, administration officials had discussed invoking a little-known statute that would allow the president to declare a national emergency and then use military funds allocated for other construction projects to buy and retrofit the Illinois prison.
That statute, however, has never been used for a project quite like this one. Fearing that lawmakers would be angered by such a move and could respond by erasing the statute, the administration decided not to invoke it.
Matthew Waxman, who was assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the Bush administration, said the Obama administration would need lawmakers’ support for its long-term post-Guantánamo plans. Invoking emergency powers to unilaterally buy Thomson, he said, would be “poking Congress in the eye in a way that would be very counterproductive.”
Still, it is not clear that Congress will be willing to approve money enabling the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to domestic soil — especially as the 2010 midterm election campaign heats up, with the likelihood that Republicans will pick up seats.
This year, Congress restricted the ability of the executive branch to transfer detainees into domestic prisons, a ban reiterated in the 2010 military appropriations bill.
The Thomson proposal enjoys strong support from Illinois Democrats, including Gov. Patrick J. Quinn and Senator Richard J. Durbin, who have hailed the idea as a means of creating jobs. More than 300 people turned out Tuesday in Sterling, Ill., for a hearing on the proposal, The Associated Press reported, and emotions ran high among people on each side of the proposal.
The White House has argued that closing Guantánamo would enhance national security by removing a symbol used by terrorist recruiters. It also said the closing would save taxpayers money because the Defense Department pays $150 million a year to operate the Guantánamo prison on the naval base there, while running the Illinois prison would cost $75 million.
Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Obama remained committed to closing the Guantánamo prison, adding, “We will continue to work with Congress to ensure that we secure the necessary funds to purchase and upgrade the Thomson prison, which will operate at a substantially lower cost to taxpayers, next year.”
But many Republicans oppose closing Guantánamo, arguing that housing the detainees on United States soil would create unnecessary security risks. Some crucial moderate Democrats are also skeptical.
Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is said to have privately expressed doubts to administration officials about the plan. Another member of that committee, Representative Loretta Sanchez, Democrat of California, also raised security and legal questions about the proposal.
“Particularly making something on U.S. soil an attraction for Al Qaeda and terrorists to go after — inciting them to attack something on U.S. soil — that’s a problem, and we need to think it through,” Ms. Sanchez said in an interview Tuesday.
In the Senate, Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has argued that the problem with Guantánamo has been its lack of due process rights, not its physical location. He said recently that terrorism suspects “do not belong in our country, they do not belong in our courts, and they do not belong in our prisons.”
Mr. LaBolt pointed out that the detainee population was now smaller than it had been at any time since 2002, and that on other fronts in the effort to close Guantánamo, “substantial progress has been made in recent weeks.”
For example, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently announced the first sets of civilian and military prosecutions for 10 detainees, and more such announcements are expected soon.
Last week, the United States transferred six detainees to Yemen in a trial program of repatriation to that country. About 91 of the roughly 200 detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni; many are not considered “high value” suspects, but officials have been reluctant to repatriate them because of security conditions in Yemen.
Still, Congressional resistance to approving money for Thomson represents a steep hurdle toward dealing with the detainees who the administration has decided can neither be prosecuted nor safely transferred to the custody of other countries.
Indeed, Mr. Waxman said, the debate is certain to set off discussions on an issue that could drive away many civil-liberties-minded Democrats who have voiced initial support for Mr. Obama’s Thomson plan: the administration’s intention to imprison some detainees on United States soil without trials. “Some members of Congress may want to support rapid closure of Guantánamo but not to signal support for broad military detention powers,” Mr. Waxman said.