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Bush’s controversial detainee bill headed for Senate floor

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September 15, 2006

Senate GOP leaders facing rebellion in their own ranks against President Bush’s plan to interrogate and prosecute terrorism suspects will call for a vote on the proposal as early as next week.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell said no decision had been made on when to vote on the measure, but he added that he hoped a floor vote would settle the issue.

The election-year debate has pitted Republicans against each other and kept in limbo the legal bounds of the CIA program to detain and interrogate “high-value” terrorism suspects. A successful vote for Bush also would allow the president to begin prosecuting detainees allegedly connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I think the president is right on this issue and I think the majority is correct on this,” McConnell, R-Ky., said.

A Republican-led Senate committee defied Bush on Thursday and approved terror-detainee legislation the president has vowed to block. Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, normally a Bush supporter, pushed the measure through his Senate Armed Services Committee by a 15-9 vote, with Warner and three other GOP lawmakers joining Democrats.

The president’s measure would go further than that bill, allowing classified evidence to be withheld from defendants in terror trials and using coerced testimony. The legislation also would revise the law that interprets the nation’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets the standard for treatment of war prisoners, so that harsh interrogations of detainees would not be questioned in court.

Warner as well as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., oppose the legislation because they say it could expose U.S. troops to abusive treatment in future wars. They also contend that barring a defendant from access to evidence used to convict them would undermine the credibility of the court.

With the two sides unable to reach an accord, McConnell said it was time to “let the Congress work its will.”

But whether the majority of senators will agree remains unclear. Eleven Armed Services Committee Democrats joined Warner, McCain, Graham and Maine Republican Susan Collins in voting in favor of the alternative legislation.

The vote by the moderate Collins underscored that there might be broad enough GOP support to successfully take on Bush on the floor of the Republican-run Senate.

A surprise entry into the fray was Colin Powell, Bush’s first secretary of state, who announced his opposition to his old boss’ plan, saying it would hurt the country. Powell’s successor, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sprang to the president’s defense in a letter of her own.

As the battle mushrooms, it threatens to undermine campaign season assertions by the administration that it has shown a steady hand on security matters and that Republicans should be trusted over Democrats on such issues.

Bush still has many congressional allies, including House and Senate leaders and conservatives, who want to align themselves with the president’s tough stance on interrogation and prosecution. The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday passed a bill that supports the administration’s position by 52-8.

But that support is not universal. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said he told Bush when the president visited House Republicans on Thursday to rally the troops that he should heed the military’s top uniformed lawyers, who have previously opposed some provisions of the president’s plan.

Bush was forced to propose the measure after the Supreme Court ruled in June that his existing court system established to prosecute terrorism suspects was illegal and violated the Geneva Conventions. The White House legislation would create military commissions to prosecute terror suspects, as well as redefine acts that constitute war crimes.

McCain, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, has become a moral authority in Congress on prisoner of war issues. The former Navy pilot spent more than five years in enemy captivity during the Vietnam War and last year successfully pushed through legislation opposed by the president that banned cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of military detainees.

McConnell acknowledged the president’s proposal could lose, but said the war on terror “doesn’t stop for elections.” The senator also questioned whether Democrats would side against the president’s proposal when trying to prove to the American public they are tough on national security.

“I think it would be awkward for Democratic senators to vote in favor of giving classified information to the terrorists,” he said.

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