President Bush dispatched the vice president and top aides to the Capitol on Tuesday to try to break an election-season deadlock with Republicans over the surveillance and prosecution of terrorism suspects.
But officials met stiff resistance from senators and House leaders who say they refuse to give the White House a blank check over the war on terror. The standoff raised questions about whether the president could unite Republicans on his anti-terror agenda before November’s midterm elections.
Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten appealed to Senate Republicans during their weekly policy lunch to pass legislation that would let Bush begin prosecuting terror suspects. The legislation also would limit the circumstances under which a government interrogator could be prosecuted for mistreating a detainee.
Also meeting with lawmakers this week on detainee treatment was CIA Director Michael Hayden.
The administration is also pressing separate legislation that would let it track terrorists by electronic surveillance.
Several versions of that legislation are expected to advance through the Senate and House Judiciary Committees this week. They would give legal status to the controversial surveillance program, as well as impose new rules and congressional oversight.
Bush’s surveillance plan faces a difficult fight in Congress, especially in the House, where GOP leaders favor a different approach.
That measure, sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and endorsed by the GOP chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, would require the administration to wait until a terrorist attack to open an electronic surveillance program.
The White House has conditionally endorsed one bill, by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., as long as it’s passed unchanged — not a sure thing given amendments that await it on the floor as soon as next week.
Specter’s bill would submit the existing electronic surveillance program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for a one-time constitutional review and expand the time for emergency warrants from three to seven days.
On the effort to craft a new way for military trials of terror detainees, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he supports the administration’s efforts and could call for a vote on it — or a competing bill favored by some GOP senators — at any time.
The alternative bill was drafted by Sens. John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, members of the Armed Services Committee. They say their measure would improve the credibility of a court system to prosecute detainees and prevent abusive treatment that would violate the Geneva Conventions.
Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday the group remains locked in negotiations with other Republicans.
Graham said he expects the final legislation will allow a defendant to access all evidence used against them — a provision staunchly opposed by the White House and House and Senate leadership because it could reveal classified information. Graham said steps can be taken to prevent unnecessary exposure of protected information, but ultimately a fair trial must allow defendants the ability to confront evidence used against them.
“I think we’ve made a pretty good case that giving something to a jury to convict a defendant (with hidden evidence) is a nonstarter,” Graham added.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said they agree all evidence should be shared with a defendant.
Graham and others said the biggest sticking points left on the bill were on the circumstances under which an interrogator could be prosecuted for mistreating detainees.
The administration would forbid what critics call a bare bones list of violations — such as torture, murder and rape — under the 1996 War Crimes Act that potentially leaves open the door for harsher interrogation methods. Warner, Graham and McCain are pushing more precise definitions, as well as a ban on coerced testimony, to ensure tough interrogations do not lead to abuse or violate the Geneva Conventions.
These definitions of war crimes have “shown to be the toughest part” of negotiations with the White House because it must be done “in a way that would adhere to your values but would not put your troops at risk for trivial violations,” Graham said.
Associated Press Writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
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