Staff at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have been told to start winding down operations.
Chairman Leonard Leo says the commission will have to “close the offices at the end of the day on the 16th (of December).”
That’s if Congress does not approve $4 million in annual funding for the independent bipartisan commission, as well as re-authorize its mission, which is to advocate for persecuted religious minorities around the world and advise the U.S. government on related policy positions.
But Leo says Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin has put a hold on funding for the commission until Congress sets aside money for something unrelated.
Durbin wants the U.S. government to buy a little-used state prison in Thomson Illinois and turn it into a federal lock-up. Durbin has said it will bring 1,100 jobs to the area and over $1 billion to the region. Republicans have opposed funding for the prison because the Obama administration initially considered sending Gitmo detainees there.
Leo says the uncertainty of the situation is frustrating and that his commission “is a sort of a hostage in this political fight.”
Democratic sources strongly deny a connection between money for the commission and money for the prison. They say there is legislation moving that will keep the agency open, but Democrats will want some unspecified reforms.
Since Durbin's name is connected to the matter, it will get lawmakers' attention, according to Bob Cusack, managing editor of The Hill newspaper. Durbin “is (Majority Leader) Harry Reid's direct deputy. He's the No. 2 Senate Democrat. He's got a lot of power, so when he wants something people have to listen because he controls what happens on the Senate floor.”
The commission sent a letter last month to President Obama, asking him to come out in support of the group and "expeditiously communicate this support to the Senate."
Late Thursday, the Obama administration told Fox News it's working with Congress to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and “believes that a robust commission is critical to advancing religious freedom around the globe."