Washington: The US Senate will vote later on Tuesday on defense legislation that would ease restrictions on transferring detainees from Guantanamo, a major first step toward closing the controversial war-on-terror prison.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the provision should be the first measure debated and voted on in the 2014 defense spending bill now under consideration, and which Congress aims to pass in December.
President Barack Obama`s Democrats and rival Republicans are largely split on the future of the detention facility at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Shortly after his 2009 inauguration Obama pledged to close the prison, but the goal has eluded him, complicated by claims from opponents that significant numbers of released detainees went on to join terror groups back home.
The current measure would loosen restrictions on moving detainees out of the prison, including those who have long been cleared for transfer overseas but are still held.
It would also lift a ban on sending terror suspects from Guantanamo to the US mainland for detention, trial or emergency medical treatment.
"I would accept the language in that defense bill as it relates to Guantanamo as a significant improvement. But my Republican colleagues want to have an opportunity to change that," Reid said on the Senate floor.
The issue would "need to be resolved on the Senate floor," Reid said, adding that he hoped for a vote on the provision "before the night`s out."
Guantanamo still holds 164 "war on terror" suspects, including 56 Yemenis who were deemed not to be a security threat but were under a moratorium until May for transfer to their violence-wracked country.
Most have never been charged or tried and face indefinite detention for as-yet unproven suspicions.
On Monday the White House called the Armed Services Committee`s Guantanamo proposal "constructive" and said it wanted to work with Congress to ensure "flexibility" in allowing the administration to transfer such detainees if security threats were sufficiently mitigated.
Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on Armed Services, said "sticking points" remained.
"I feel very strongly about that issue," Inhofe told AFP, referring to his opposition to easing Guantanamo restrictions.
"I like the language in the House bill on Gitmo."
The Republican-led House of Representatives` defense spending bill, which passed last June, would bar the administration from transferring detainees to US soil or a foreign country such as Yemen.
Armed Services chairman Senator Carl Levin defended his provision Tuesday, saying passing it would "get us past our fear that we cannot securely handle Gitmo detainees in this country."
The Michigan Democrat said Guantanamo, operated at the cost of more than $400 million annually, does not increase US security, serving instead as "an argument for jihad" against the United States.
He also acknowledged the tough prospect of forging a compromise, saying that finishing the mammoth legislation "is going to be a very difficult task."
"We are going to need the cooperation of all senators to get this important bill passed, as we must, in the limited time available to us before Thanksgiving week."
The Senate and House would then appoint negotiators to thrash out a spending bill by year end.
But there was concern in Washington that the timing would slip past Thanksgiving next week, which is a rest week for lawmakers.
"No, I don`t see how you do all this week," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, adding that crucial amendments should be considered for the bill, including potential new sanctions against Iran in the midst of US and western negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Inhofe and Senator Kelly Ayotte have introduced measures that would effectively block the easing of restrictions and keep Guantanamo open indefinitely.
"Why would we want the most dangerous terrorists in the world, some of them, to come to the United States" when there is a functional military prison at Guantanamo, said Ayotte.