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Republicans Protest Planned Purchase of Illinois Prison

The Justice Department is again drawing the ire of House Republicans, this time over moving ahead with the purchase of a prison facility in Illinois without Congressional consent.

The Obama administration is filing legal paperwork to acquire the Thomson Correctional Center from the state of Illinois – at a cost of $165 million – for use by the Bureau of Prisons.

The DOJ says it would cost at least $400 million to build a maximum security facility from the ground up.

Top Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee were quick to criticize the move because they did not sign off on the transfer of funds needed for the purchase.

“This back-door move by the Obama administration to open Thomson and reject the will of Congress and the American people is dangerously irresponsible, and will be met with the full and unfettered opposition of the Appropriations Committee,” Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was among the leading advocates of the acquisition, citing the potential economic boon for his home state.

“This historic action will lead to the creation of hundreds of construction jobs and over 1,000 permanent jobs at this federal facility. After facing a political standoff in the House of Representatives, I went directly to the president and asked him to take this action,” Durbin said. “The president knows the Quad Cities and the critical need for good-paying jobs in this part of the state.”

Durbin pushed for the reprogramming request in a July 11 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Durbin has also noted that the project has the backing of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined in the opposition today, specifically referring to Durbin, a fellow member of the Appropriations Committee.

“Congress has repeatedly rejected the Obama administration’s effort to use taxpayer funds to purchase this prison. It is clear that the funding law that Sen. Durbin voted for and President Obama signed does not suddenly authorize what Congress has repeatedly denied,” the Kentucky Republican said. “This election-eve purchase comes at the expense of delaying approved projects that are not in the president’s home state.”

McConnell and Rogers suggested the move could allow detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to be relocated to the United States despite opposition on Capitol Hill. The Obama administration denies that is the plan.

In a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, Holder emphasized that point.

“The entire Thomson facility will house only [Bureau of Prisons] federal inmates, and will be operated solely by the Bureau. As you know, any transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States would be prohibited by statute,” Holder wrote. “Thomson represents a solution to the safety needs of the Bureau; it is unrelated to Guantanamo.”

Wolf contends the purchase amounts to an earmark because of Durbin’s request, even though the funds will be expended by administration directive.

“President Obama’s unprecedented directive to Attorney General Holder to circumvent Congress to purchase Thomson prison is deeply troubling,” Wolf said. “It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.”

Wolf’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), has supported the project.

Holder said the $165 million for the prison facility would come from several Justice Department accounts, with the vast majority from the Asset Forfeiture Fund.