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Debate over Gitmo Prisoner Transfer turns Political in Illinois

(CBS/AP)
Lawmakers in the state of Illinois are debating the economic and safety issues surrounding a potential transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a maximum security prison about 150 miles west of Chicago. In the process, they have also managed to turn the discussion into a partisan debate.

Democrats in Illinois, including Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, are in support of a plan the White House is considering to move Guantanamo detainees to the Thomson State Correctional facility in Northwest Illinois. On Wednesday, Durbin will hold a closed-door briefing on the issue with the state's entire congressional delegation, according to the Hill newspaper. Pentagon and Justice Department officials will be in attendance at the meeting, along with Illinois state officials, the Hill reports.

Federal officials and state lawmakers toured the nearly empty facility in November. Thomson has 1,600 cells, but it currently only holds about 200 minimum-security inmates because budget problems kept it from fully opening. Bringing the Guantanamo detainees to the prison could bring nearly 3,000 jobs to the area, according to a White House analysis. The county's unemployment rate, which was at 10.5 percent in September, could be cut by 2 to 4 percentage points by the transfer, according to the analysis.

"There are too many people out of work, there are businesses closing down because people are out of work," Durbin said reportedly said in November, explaining his support for the plan. "They need pay checks."

Nevertheless, Republican representatives from Illinois maintain the move would be a bad idea. GOP Illinois Reps. Mark Kirk, Aaron Schock, Pete Roskam, Tim Johnson, Mark Kirk, John Shimkus, Judy Biggert and Don Manzullo have introduced legislation to ban funding for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., the Hill notes.

State legislators are also in dispute over how to handle the issue. Republicans from the Illinois General Assembly on Friday called for a special bipartisan committee to study the potential sale of Thomson to the federal government, the Chicago Tribune reports. House Republican Leader Tom Cross called it one of the most "salient issues" in the state today.

A state legislative panel will have to review the closing of the prison before it could be sold to the federal government, but Democratic State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, who co-chairs that panel, wants to fast-track that process, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, political candidates in upcoming Illinois elections are adding their two cents to the debate. Gubernatorial candidate Andy McKenna, the former Illinois Republican party chair, said Monday that moving Guantanamo inmates to Thomson is an "extreme plan" to "put terrorists in our neighborhood," the Quad-City Times reports. McKenna is one of a half dozen Republicans who have jumped into Illinois' 2010 gubernatorial election.

Chicago writer Dennis Byrne wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed today that opposing the transfer of prisoners to Thomson could ultimately work against Republicans.

"Republicans are handing Democrats a ready-made issue, making the GOP look like they oppose job creation in a community that badly needs help," Byrne wrote. "Isn't a better issue for Republicans the fact that a $145 million maximum-security prison with 1,600 cells is home to only 144 inmates? That's all the state can afford thanks to years of financial mismanagement. Most of the blame falls on Democrats."

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