WASHINGTON - In a blow to President Barack Obama, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to prohibit his administration from transferring terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay military prison to face prosecution in the United States.
The measure, if it becomes law, would further complicate the administration's plan to empty the internationally condemned military prison by January 2010.
Guantanamo detainees currently can only come to the United States to face trial under restrictions already imposed by Congress. Lawmakers have also denied funds to shut down the facility.
The Obama administration hopes to bring some of the 223 detainees remaining in the facility to the United States to face charges in American courtrooms. Republicans and many Democrats have worried that housing the suspects on U.S. soil could create security risks.
Republican Representative Hal Rogers, the measure's sponsor, said the detainees do not deserve American legal protections and should stay to face trial at Guantanamo.
They are not criminal defendants. They are prisoners in a war, he said.
The measure also would prohibit the Pentagon from releasing photos showing the abuse of terrorism suspects, which have figured prominently in several scandals. Obama and the Senate also support keeping the photos from the public.
Rogers' measure passed by a vote of 258 to 163, drawing the support of many Democrats as well as Republicans. It was added as a non-binding recommendation to a bill that funds the Homeland Security Department for the 2010 fiscal year.
The Senate included no restrictions on Guantanamo transfers in its version of the bill, and negotiators from both chambers are not obligated to retain the provision when they meet to hammer out their differences. A negotiating session scheduled for Thursday afternoon was postponed after the House vote.
The final version is expected to contain some restrictions on the transfer of terrorism suspects, possibly continuing those currently in place, congressional aides said.
Democratic Representative David Obey, who heads the committee that oversees spending, said the final bill will still honor the United States' due-process laws.
These people are enemy combatants and they don't deserve it. But we don't make our decisions on the basis of what we think of defendants, we make our decisions on the basis of what we think of ourselves, Obey said.
The Obama administration has been resettling some detainees to either their home countries or other nations, like Palau, which are willing to take them. Republican Representative Frank Wolf urged Attorney General Eric Holder not to send them home to unstable countries like Yemen, where al Qaeda is active.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Philip Barbara and Todd Eastham)