White House looks for compromise on terrorist bill

McClatchy Newspapers

With time running out before Congress recesses next week, the White House appeared Tuesday to be offering dissident Republican senators a compromise on detainee legislation that would leave the language of the Geneva Conventions untouched if lawmakers preserve the CIA’s terrorist-interrogation program.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an administration ally, described the proposal in broad terms, saying, "that’s essentially what it does," but stressed that "this is still a negotiation in flux."

Cornyn said any deal could hinge on whether the Justice Department can provide the CIA with a legal opinion "that, yes, what you’re doing is clearly within bounds and will not expose you to liability."

The Bush administration wants to ensure that certain harsh CIA interrogation practices aren’t ruled illegal, such as "water-boarding," which simulates drowning. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that U.S. treatment of detainees must respect standards of the Geneva Conventions, post-World War II international treaties that guarantee human rights and standards of justice for prisoners of war.

In another sign of the administration’s compromise terms, George P. Shultz, secretary of state under President Reagan and well-connected to current policy-makers, released a statement saying, "I believe that there is a compromise that leaves the Geneva Convention alone and achieves the specificity that the administration wants."

Although such terms would mark a significant concession by Bush, no deal appeared imminent with the key Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans: Chairman John Warner of Virginia and Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Each declined to confirm details of the administration’s overture or their response, citing the touch-and-go nature of the ongoing talks.

Warner said, "Until such time as words are put down to paper and people agree on it, I would not try and prejudge who’s giving in, who’s doing this, or one thing and another."

Graham said he was "very pleased with the tone and the progress" of the negotiations. He had released a statement late Monday saying the senators "share the president’s goal of enacting legislation preserving an effective CIA program to make us safe, upholding Geneva Convention protections for our troops and passing constitutional muster."

A White House spokeswoman also declined to confirm any details. Vice President Dick Cheney urged a compromise during a closed-door policy luncheon with Senate Republicans, but didn’t speak with reporters.

Even as the private discussions continued, prospects looked dim that a final deal could be sealed between the Senate and the House of Representatives by the end of next week, when Congress is scheduled to recess until after the November elections.

The House postponed a vote on its version of detainee legislation until next week. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he believed it would be next week before the full Senate can vote. If the two bills differ, they must be reconciled and passed anew by both chambers.

Frist also declared that the version of the legislation favored by Warner, McCain and Graham, which the Armed Services Committee approved 15-9, could endanger CIA agents and has no prospect of surviving a filibuster, a parliamentary stall designed to kill the measure.

The administration has been under mounting pressure from military and diplomacy experts to abandon its plan to interpret U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions in a way that appeared to weaken human rights protections. Vocal critics have included former Secretary of State Colin Powell and military judges.

Opposition to Bush from such sources undermined Republican strategy for the fall elections for the party’s candidates to rally behind Bush on national security.

"The president picked the battle and he thought it would be with Democrats, but it’s been with Republicans, and until they resolve their issue, I don’t think there’s much that can be done with that," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.