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Tomorrow: Big Guantanamo Day in Congress

Title XIV of H.R. 5136, the House bill authorizing next year’s Defense Department money, doesn’t look like it carries a major legacy item for President Obama. It’s the banal-appearing 15-part section of the bill that authorizes “ADDITIONAL APPROPRIATIONS FOR OVERSEAS CONTINGENCY OPERATIONS FOR FISCAL YEAR 2011,” a bureaucratic euphemism for “War Money.” Inside it is the difference between closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and leaving the international symbol of U.S. lawlessness and abuse open.

Tomorrow, the House Armed Services Committee marks up H.R. 5136, its final committee step in the House before heading to the House floor. And within Title XIV of the bill is something called the “Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund.” The version reported on April 26 — the final markup version is now in congressmen’s hands — authorizes $1,551,781,000 for that fund. But if it sounds like you don’t know what that “transfer” fund means, it’s because the opacity is to protect the fund from legislators.

Robert Hale, the Pentagon comptroller, explained in a press conference when the budget was released this winter that part of that money is for closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. “In fiscal year ’11, there is a transfer fund that could be used for all aspects of detainee operations, $350 million,” Hale told reporters. “It would permit us to transfer funds to places where we need to close or transition Guantanamo. It would permit us to transfer funds to accounts that would let us open the Thomson, Illinois site.”

If that fund makes it through the markup, then it’s just passed a major hurdle. The House will approve the entire defense budget, probably as early as next week, and it’s highly unlikely to hold up a huge bill that contains next year’s Afghanistan and Iraq war money for the controversy of closing Guantanamo. (The Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup comes at the end of the month.) If the fund money gets stripped out of the bill during markup, however, then it gets much harder to shut the detention facility down. Given the likelihood of increased Republican ranks in Congress after November, it may become effectively impossible.

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