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White House Spokesman Faces Off With Reporter Over Congress' Motives for Keeping Gitmo Open

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"The only argument that we’ve heard from them is that they don’t want to face their constituents."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest conducts the daily press briefing at James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House October 30, 2015 in Washington, DC. The White House announced today that U.S. special forces will be deployed to help fight ISIS in Syria. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will sign a new defense spending authorization bill, despite language in the bill that would keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. But he went on to blast members of Congress who approved keeping the prison, indicating that they lacked principle.

"The only argument that we’ve heard from them is that they don’t want to face their constituents and they don’t want to be on the receiving end of a disingenuous, politically motivated attack ad," Earnest said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Earnest said that the president will sign the bill based on the "practical reality of what the votes look like."

Ultimately, the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed both houses of Congress with large bipartisan support, is needed to authorize funding for various other aspects of military, thus Obama will be signing the bill. Last month, Obama vetoed an earlier version of the NDAA for the first time during his presidency.

"Our view of those specific provisions have not changed. What the president does believe though is that there are a number of provisions in the NDAA that are important to running and protecting the country," Earnest said. "That’s why I would expect you would see the president sign the NDAA when it comes to his desk, whenever it comes to his desk. But that certainly does not reflect a change in our position or the intensity of our position about the need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the need for Congress to actually cooperate with us in doing something."

After his veto last month over demands for increased non-defense spending and demands to close Guantanamo Bay, Obama's concession on Gitmo could represent a rare instance where congressional Republicans, frequently criticized by conservatives, have managed to push through a legislative victory over the president. However, this comes at a time when the White House has said that Obama is considering taking executive action to close the prison.

Earnest later got in a strong exchange when questioned by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller.

Of Congress, Earnest said, "Unfortunately, they are in a position that they are focused more narrowly on their own political concerns than they are the broader national security interests of the United States of America."

"But there are members of Congress who argue that by allowing the transfer of detainees to the United States would put Americans in jeopardy," Knoller responded. "That’s a national security argument isn’t it?"

"No," Earnest answered. "It’s not a legitimate one considering there are any number of convicted terrorists that are serving time in American prisons on American soil right now"

"Who says there should be any more?" Knoller continued to press.

"They haven’t made a strong case for why those individuals that are currently incarcerated in American prisons on American soil for terrorism charges are somehow posing a national security risk," Earnest replied.

"But they won the vote in Congress, and you’re saying the president is not bound by it?" Knoller asked.

"No. I don’t think I said that," Earnest answered.

But when Knoller asked, "You think he is bound by it?" Earnest wasn't clear.

"The president is making a forceful case to the United States Congress about how they need to put the national security interest of the United States ahead of their own personal politics. I don’t think there has been a legitimate argument that is consistent with our national security interest. The only clear cut motivation on the part of members of Congress right now, when it comes to this issue, is their own personal politics. It doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The best argument they can come up with is, 'Well, we don’t want to put any more terrorists in American prisons,'" Earnest said. "We’ve got plenty of terrorists in American prisons right now that are there because it’s in the best interest of our national security to keep them there. We’d make make the same case about the terrorist currently being detained in Guantanamo Bay."

"You are impugning their political motives. Right?" Knoller asked.

On this point, Earnest answered in the affirmative.

"Until I can hear a better argument," Earnest said. "The only argument that we’ve heard from them is that they don’t want to face their constituents and they don’t want to be on the receiving end of a disingenuous, politically motivated attack ad. That’s fine. They are certainly entitled to make decisions based on their political interests, but it’s not what they are elected to do."

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