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House votes to block Obama plan to close Guantanamo

Weeds and flowers grow near the fence at Camp X-Ray, a prison formerly used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Mar
Weeds and flowers grow near the fence at Camp X-Ray, a prison formerly used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Mar

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives passed a massive defense bill on Friday that includes measures to block President Barack Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, underscoring the tough fight ahead for the White House as it seeks to shutter the controversial detention camp.

The Republican-controlled House voted, 315-108, for the $638 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes money for weapons, troops and the war in Afghanistan. But it also addresses a range of policy matters, including this year's efforts to combat sexual assault in the military and provisions intended to prevent the closure of the prison camp at the base in Cuba.

Despite a hunger strike by at least 104 of the 166 prisoners and appeals from Obama that the prison is too expensive to maintain and a recruiting tool for anti-American militants, the House voted, 249-174, to defeat an amendment calling for its shutdown by the end of 2014.

Lawmakers also voted to prevent the transfer to Yemen or the United States of any of the prisoners, captured in counterterrorism operations after the September 11, 2001, attacks, although more than half have been cleared for release during U.S. military and intelligence reviews.

Obama, who had pledged during his 2008 presidential campaign to shut down the Guantanamo prison, had his counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, call legislators this week in a last-ditch effort to build support for closing the base.

LESS RESISTANCE IN SENATE

The House vote does not end Obama's hopes of shutting down the prison. The Senate must still pass its version of the massive National Defense Authorization Act, and then the two will be reconciled before being submitted to Obama, who has threatened to veto the House version of the bill.

There is less resistance to closing Guantanamo in the Senate, where Obama's fellow Democrats hold a slim majority. A handful of Republicans, including Arizona's influential Senator John McCain, also want it shut.

The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the bill - which still faces a vote in the full Senate - would give the defense department more flexibility to close the Guantanamo prison.

Lawmakers have been demanding changes in the way the military deals with sexual assaults after a spate of high-profile cases. A Pentagon study last month also showed that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped 37 percent in 2012, to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.

The bill passed by the House also included measures to change the way the military deals with sexual assault but stopped short of taking control of those cases away from the chain of command.

Instead, it includes a range of provisions including one setting minimum sentences of two years' imprisonment and dishonorable discharge for those convicted of such crimes, authorizing a study of how commanders deal with sexual assault cases and another barring commanders from overturning sex assault convictions.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Trott)

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