Obama faces more setbacks in push for civilian terror trials 

Congressional Democrats are joining opposition to a White House plan for trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts -- a proposal the administration says is still under discussion.

A bipartisan group of senators, including two Democrats and one independent, want to block public funding to try Guantanamo Bay detention center prisoners in U.S. federal courts.

"The American people understand that the masterminds of 9/11 are not your average street criminals -- and they don't want them in their back yards," said Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and co-sponsor of the measure. "They are the worst of the worst and should not receive the same protections as U.S. citizens."

President Obama's federal budget blueprint included $200 million to bring accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others to trial in civilian federal courts. Originally slated for New York, a final venue remains under discussion.

But lawmakers, responding to intense public opposition to the plan, are balking at the proposal and hoping the administration blinks. Also unhappy about the plan are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials.

"There's no doubt that a city like New York has serious security and logistical concerns about a trial, and those can, should and will be taken into account," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

While Obama supports the Justice Department's recommendations on trial venues, Gibbs said many decisions "have not been made" about the trials and how to proceed.

The unpopular plan for civilian trials hands Republicans a potent national security issue to campaign on in the fall. The federal courthouse in New York is less than a mile from Ground Zero.

Two Democrats joining the move to block funding are Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a former secretary of the Navy, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat facing a tough re-election challenge.

Also signing on to the bill was Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman. One terrorism expert said lawmakers are feeling public pressure.

"This administration is determined to be the un-Bush administration and seeks to turn back the clock and handle terrorism purely as a criminal matter," said Jim Phillips, an expert on terrorism at the Heritage Foundation. "They miss the broader point that the public is most concerned about national security, and not punishing terrorists after they have inflicted their damage."

The question of terrorism trials came up in the Senate Democratic Caucus meeting, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He also declined to embrace Obama's plan.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens around here" with various committees and legislation, Reid said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took a tougher line, however, predicting the administration will be forced to rethink the civilian trials.

"I think the administration is going to retreat here," McConnell said. "Just because the people of New York have stood up and said, 'We don't want then here,' I hope they don't think there's any other part of the country that's clamoring to have terrorist trials."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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