With a week left, the do-nothing Congress will do nothing

McClatchy Newspapers

With less than a week before Congress begins its fall recess, Sen. Arlen Specter said he doesn’t expect much action on the terrorism interrogation bill that’s attracted so much attention.

Or on the bill regarding President Bush’s secret surveillance program.

Or on comprehensive immigration reform.

Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sees a heavy congressional agenda but little hope for completing it this week as Republicans head home to concentrate on retaining control of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the November 7 elections.

"We’re unlikely to finish up very much, and we’ve got a lot to do," Specter said in a speech Monday at the National Press Club. "I’ve never seen so much work left to do."

All three pieces of legislation came through the Judiciary Committee, and each has met with complicated opposition and drawn-out negotiations.

On Sunday, Specter came out against the compromise on interrogating suspected terrorists that the White House finally worked out with Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

McCain and his fellow Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina argued that Bush’s initial plan might run afoul of the Geneva Conventions, which protect prisoners of war against torture. Bush has said that he wants to be able to use tough "alternative interrogation methods" to pry information from possible terrorists.

Specter opposed a clause in the compromise that, for some suspects, would remove the protections of habeas corpus, a tradition that predates the Magna Carta of 1215 and affirms that prisoners are entitled to have a court review whether they’re being held legally.

"It’s been around a long time . . . and emblazoned in the Constitution that habeas corpus can be suspended only in the event of rebellion or invasion," Specter said Monday. "We don’t have either of these now."

Specter said he’d submit an amendment to protect the courts’ authority to review the status of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. But in response to questions, he refused to say whether he’d vote against the current compromise.

"I want to see how it shakes out," Specter said.

This also is the last week for Congress to consider immigration reform. The House last week passed legislation to build 700 miles of new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Specter said he supported the fence, but he said he also thinks that the country should devise a guest-worker program and determine how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living here, issues dealt with in a bill the Senate passed earlier this year.

House leaders refuse to go to conference with the Senate to hash out a more comprehensive package, Specter said.

"The House of Representatives doesn’t think much of the bicameral system," he said.

Specter said that the Senate might finish legislation this week that defines the government’s authority to monitor suspected terrorist-related phone calls.

But in all three cases, he said, it’s more important for the Senate to do the legislation right than it is to pass the bills quickly.

"I think it’s important, even in the last week, that we do it right," Specter said. "If we can’t get it done right, we ought not to do it."