By LAURIE KELLMAN
White House loyalists struggled on Wednesday to save President Bush’s wartime legislative plans from collapsing under Republican squabbles. In cliffhanger votes, a House committee rejected, then endorsed Bush’s proposal to continue tough interrogations of suspected terrorists.
The tug-of-war on the House Judiciary Committee was evidence of the difficulty Bush is having in lining up support for his terrorism-fighting proposals weeks before the November elections.
Democrats sat on the sidelines "watching the catfights" among Republicans on surveillance and detainee legislation, said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
He noted that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was forced to postpone consideration of those bills this week and that senators are debating border security "because they have nothing else to do."
To win a largely symbolic endorsement of the White House’s detainee proposal, committee Republicans performed a series of procedural gymnastics. After an initial vote resulted in a 20-17 count against the measure, GOP aides wrangled two absent members — Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois and Elton Gallegly of California — for four more votes to turn the rejection into an endorsement.
The proceedings became muddled as Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked members to repeat their votes.
"I voted no, yes," Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said at one point.
The "favorable rating," while not required to send the bill to a full House vote, was worth the fight for White House loyalists struggling to keep the bill alive in the waning days of the congressional session.
Prospects were not much clearer in the Senate, where the White House and a group of dissenting Republicans were in negotiations over the detainee bill.
One leading Republican predicted the House would accept any deal worked out between the White House and the opposition senators.
"If the Senate and the White House have reached an agreement, that is probably what would end up becoming law and making its way to the president’s desk," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Intricate negotiations on both interrogation techniques for detainee issue and legalizing the president’s warrantless wiretapping program left their prospects for passage uncertain — even after a White House meeting Wednesday between Bush and Republican congressional leaders.
For the White House, there was some good news.
The House Intelligence Committee approved by voice vote a bill that would put into law the administration’s warrentless wiretapping program. The sponsor, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., had rewritten the measure to make it more Bush’s liking. The Judiciary Committee later endorsed a similar version, 20-16.
But Wilson’s revision, likely to draw Bush’s support, is the bill that probably will make it to the full House.
The concession on imminent attacks would come at a price for the president.
Under Wilson’s revised bill, the president may only conduct the secret surveillance under specific conditions. For example, the president must notify Congress within five days of authorizing the surveillance, name the entity that poses the threat and state the reason for believing the attack is imminent.
Even if the House and Senate pass versions of the wiretapping legislation in the next week, the differences would not be resolved until a lame-duck congressional session after the Nov. 7 elections, Wilson said.
Meanwhile on detainees, talks continued between the White House and Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are opposed to the president’s proposal on detainees.
The House’s endorsement of Bush’s detainee policy did not mean Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were in lockstep with Bush. Two Republicans — Reps. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. — voted against the Bush bill.
Neither side in the Senate had the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster and move a detainee bill forward. Negotiators said a deal still was possible.
"Progress has been made," said Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Frist, who supports Bush’s position, said he was "hopeful that very soon agreement can be reached."
Associated Press writers Anne Plummer Flaherty and Katherine Shrader contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press