WASHINGTON - Despite President Obama's new vow, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison is still a tough sell in Congress. So the White House may look toward smaller steps like transferring some terror suspects back overseas.
Shutting down the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba is a goal that has eluded Obama since he took office. In his first week, he signed an executive order for its closure, but Congress has used its budgetary power to block detainees from being moved to the United States.
Now, with 100 of the 166 prisoners on a hunger strike in protest of their indefinite detention and prison conditions, Obama is promising a renewed push before Congress and has ordered a review of his administrative options.
The White House is acknowledging its process to review cases for possible release has not been implemented fast enough and says the president is considering reappointing a senior official at the State Department to focus on transfers out of the prison.
Guantanamo had slipped down the agenda of the president, who promised to close it during his campaign five years ago but has transferred few prisoners out in recent years. Conditions at the camp are tense, with 23 prisoners who are in danger of starving themselves being force-fed through nasal tubes and some 40 naval medical personnel arriving over the weekend to deal with the strike that shows no sign of ending.
Obama's comments revived an issue that has not been prominent in recent debate, with some of the most recent national polling more than a year old.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) responded to Obama's latest call by citing last year's administration report that 28 percent of the roughly 600 released detainees were either confirmed or suspected of later engaging in extremist activity.
"They're individuals hell-bent on our destruction and destroying our way of life," he said in a statement. "There is bipartisan opposition to closing Gitmo."
Republicans and several Democrats have repeatedly blocked efforts by Obama to take the initial steps toward closure. But that doesn't mean the administration's hands are completely tied.
Eight-six prisoners at Guantanamo have been cleared for transfer to other countries. Such transfers were common under President George W. Bush and at the beginning of the Obama administration. They stopped after Congress imposed new security restrictions over concerns that some prisoners might be released by foreign governments and return to the battlefield.
Obama could get around the restriction by issuing a national security waiver through the Pentagon.
He signed an executive order two years ago establishing review procedures for detainees to determine if continued detention was warranted, beginning with hearings before an interagency Periodic Review Board. The order required the reviews to begin by March 2012, but the administration has yet to announce any hearings.