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Sanders, Leahy Have Voted Both Sides Of Guantanamo Closure

Angela Evancie
VPR File
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders, seen here with Sanders' wife Jane, have both cast votes in the Senate that make it harder for the Department of Defense to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Sen. Bernie Sanders joined Sen. Patrick Leahy Wednesday in commending President Obama’s latest efforts to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Vermont’s senators have both been part of single-digit Senate minorities voting to close the prison, but they’ve also both voted against those interests. That includes a Sanders vote against the measure designed to fund Obama’s January 2009executive order to close the prison within one year, and a Leahy vote in the fall for a defense bill that bars the government from moving Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.

“I am encouraged to see that the president is sending Congress a plan to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison,” Sanders said in a press release Tuesday. “As I have said for years, the prison at Guantanamo must be closed as quickly as possible. Others, including my opponent, have not always agreed with me.”

The Sanders releases mentions a 2007 vote in which Sanders and Leahy were two of three votes against a provision to bar the government from moving Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S.

Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sanders' release noted, voted in favor.

Two years later, Vermont’s senators were on opposing sides of the issue. When it came time to fund Obama’s campaign promise to close the prison within a year, Sanders balked. In a 90-6 vote, Sanders and the majority of the Senate declined to fund Guantanamo’s closure.

That vote, specifically, was on an amendment that would have added $80 million for Guantanamo’s closure to a military spending bill. Sanders, who voted against the $91.3 billion funding package, also voted not to add the $80 million for the closure of Guantanamo to the bill.

In a statement at the time, Sanders explained his vote.

“A number of important questions remain unanswered regarding the rather complicated issue of not just how you close down the facility, but what you do with the prisoners,” he said in part. “In order to answer these questions, President Obama has appointed a high-level committee of top administration officials who will be issuing a report in the coming months.  I think that it is prudent to review that plan they develop before we spend $80 million in taxpayer money.”

Leahy was one of the six votes in favor of that 2009 funding package, and he also voted to approve the overall military funding bill.

In November, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed the Senate with a 91 to three vote. The bill included language that bans the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States.

That legislative tactic is one Leahy explicitly decried in his statement Tuesday in support of Obama’s plan.

“Now Congress must do its part and lift the unnecessary and counter-productive restrictions on transferring detainees to the United States,” he said, “so that we can finally shutter Guantanamo once and for all.”

In November, however, Sen. Leahy joined 90 other Senators in passing one of those bans as part of the NDAA. Sanders and both Oregon Senators were the only votes in opposition.

In an email, Leahy spokesman David Carle said that Leahy's commitment to the closure of Guantanamo shows in his leadership on the issue.

"That has included amendments, innumerable Leahy floor speeches, letters, hearings, questions at hearings, and many one-on-one discussions with everyone from the President to Cabinet Members to fellow senators," Carle wrote.

Carle said Leahy supported the NDAA for reasons other than the ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.

"The vote you’re referring to was on the entire FY16 defense authorization bill, which included such good provisions as funding for breast cancer research, benefits for troops and their families and an across-the-board ban on torture," Carle wrote. "Throughout this process Senator Leahy supported efforts to delete this Gitmo rider, but House and Senate Republicans insisted on it, and they currently have the majorities in both bodies."

Sanders' campaign did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Update 5:48 p.m. This post was updated to include a statement from David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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