Bush faces tough sell to a skeptical Capitol Hill

President Bush will be facing a tough crowd as he steps behind closed doors to ask House Republicans divided by the politics of war to support his drive for more power to spy on, imprison and interrogate terrorism suspects.

For Bush, the unusual visit to Capitol Hill on Thursday caps a week of high-profile administration pressure to rescue bills mired in turf battles and privacy concerns. It also gives GOP leaders a chance to press for loyalty among Republicans confronted on the campaign trail by war-weary voters.

“I have not really seen anybody running away from the president,” House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters this week when asked about the caucus’ split. “Frankly, I think that would be a bad idea.”

In the basement conference room in which House Republicans meet each week, Bush is expected to ask for support for two key pieces of legislation he says are crucial to preventing terrorist attacks. One would meet CIA demands that Congress reinterpret the nation’s treaty obligations to allow tougher interrogations of detainees, but it’s snagged in the Senate between the leadership and a trio of powerful Republicans.

At nearly the same time Bush meets with House Republicans, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday is asking his panel to finish an alternative to the White House plan to prosecute terror suspects and redefine acts that constitute war crimes.

Warner believes the administration proposal would lower the standard for the treatment of prisoners, potentially putting U.S. troops at risk should other countries retaliate.

Two other Republicans — Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — have joined Warner in opposing Bush’s bill.

The administration didn’t allow such a direct challenge to pass without criticism. On Wednesday, the White House arranged for a conference call with reporters so National Intelligence Director John Negroponte could argue that Warner’s proposal would undermine the nation’s ability to interrogate prisoners.

“If this draft legislation were passed in its present form, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency has told me that he did not believe that the (interrogation) program could go forward,” Negroponte said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supports the administration, said he did not think the Bush plan would endanger U.S. troops because al-Qaida doesn’t take prisoners. “The prisoners they do take they behead,” he said.

The other bill Bush is pushing would give legal status to the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. It was approved on a party-line vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, but is stalled in the House amid staunch opposition from Democrats and some Republicans concerned that the program violates civil liberties.

With Bush preparing for the House caucus, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday, “This is a chance for members to ask their questions and express their concerns.”

House Republicans have plenty of those, and some aren’t shy about letting the president hear them.

One, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., earlier this year confronted Bush over his wiretapping program at a GOP retreat. Now she is the sponsor of a bill embraced by House GOP leaders — but not the White House — that would restrict the domestic surveillance program and step up congressional oversight.

A member of the National Security Council under Bush’s father, Wilson is facing a tough election challenge in her home state. A day earlier, Republicans abruptly canceled a scheduled committee vote on her bill that was expected to send it to the floor where the administration would push for amendments.

The atmospherics stand in stark contrast to Bush’s visit to the same group in July 2002, amid debate over a trade agreement and brisk legislative momentum for his war on terrorism.

“I talked to them about how pleased I am with the progress we’re making,” he told reporters after that meeting.

This time, happy talk is hardly on the agenda.

“We hope to hear from the president how urgent it is that we pass measures to fight terrorism before Congress leaves for the November elections,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press