Frist Sidesteps Showdown With White House

The Republican-run Senate postponed fights with the Bush administration over the treatment of terror suspects and military base closings Tuesday after GOP leaders failed to derail proposals opposed by the White House.

The decision by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to shelve the $491 billion defense bill means debate over the wartime defense measure and the detainee and base-closing amendments almost certainly won’t occur until after Labor Day. The Senate is to leave for a monthlong break at week’s end.

After putting the defense bill aside, the Senate began debating legislation shielding gun manufacturers and dealers from liability suits stemming from gun crimes. That decision drew rebukes from Democrats who accused Frist of pandering to the gun lobby.

“This to me represents moving from the national interest to the very special, special self-interest of the National Rifle Association. And I think that’s the wrong approach,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said.

The inability to thwart the controversial defense amendments was the latest setback for Frist this year. The majority leader has watched a handful of Republicans join minority Democrats in holding up John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador and blocking Frist from banning filibusters of the president’s judicial nominees.

The defense bill outlines next year’s spending for the Pentagon, including $50 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Defense Department policy.

The White House said last week that advisers would recommend that President Bush veto the entire bill if it contains provisions that govern the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody or “weaken, delay or repeal” the Pentagon’s plan to close domestic military bases.

Undeterred, a trio of top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman John Warner of Virginia, former prisoner of war John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, introduced amendments that would put into law rules for the interrogation and prosecution of detainees at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.

Other Republicans, led by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, also ignored the veto threat and put forth amendments to delay base closings that many members of Congress have complained would adversely affect their home-state interests.

On Tuesday, Frist _ with White House encouragement _ tried to get 60 votes to limit debate on the defense bill. The move, had it been successful, would have automatically killed the terror-suspect and base-closing amendments under Senate rules because they dealt with issues not already included in the bill.

The vote was 50-48, 10 shy of what was needed.

Seven Republicans eager to keep alive their amendments, primarily those on detainees and base closings, sided with 40 Democrats _ all but three _ and one independent to oppose Frist’s effort to cut off debate.

“I’m very disappointed in the last vote _ the fact that we are not going to be proceeding with the Department of Defense authorization bill,” Frist said on the Senate floor. “I do look forward to coming back and looking at that bill and passing that bill.”

Democrats pressed Frist to bring back the defense bill later this week after finishing the gun legislation, but he would not commit, making it likely that the defense bill won’t re-emerge until the fall.

The White House says it will oppose any restrictions on the president’s ability to conduct the war on terrorism and protect Americans.

Among the detainee amendments is one that would expressly prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. Another would define “enemy combatant” and put into law the procedures the Bush administration already has in place for prosecuting detainees at Guantanamo.

Base-closing amendments include one that would require the Pentagon to complete several operational reviews and return U.S. troops from Iraq before Congress signs off on the final version of the base-closing plan.

Vice President Dick Cheney met twice in two weeks with top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee over administration concerns about the defense bill. Detainee legislation was the entire focus of the second meeting.

The House has approved its own version of the defense bill, without any contentious provisions on detainees or base closings. Warner had hoped to finish the Senate’s this week.

“Like Snoopy said, it’s not whether you won or lost, it’s how you played the game,” Warner said, referencing the Peanuts cartoon character. “I played it straight.”


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