An Unexpected Collision Over Detainees
By CARL HULSE
Published: September 15, 2006
WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 — President Bush and Congressional Republicans spent
the last 10 days laying the foundation for a titanic pre-election struggle
over national security, and now they have one. But the fight playing out
this week on Capitol Hill is not what they had in mind.
Instead of drawing contrasts with Democrats, the president’s call for
creating military tribunals to try terror suspects — a key substantive and
political component of his fall agenda — has erupted into a remarkably
intense clash pitting some of the best-known warriors in the Republican
Party against Mr. Bush and the Congressional leadership.
At issue are definitions of what is permissible in trials and interrogations
that both sides view as central to the character of the nation, the way the
United States is perceived abroad and the rules of the game for what Mr.
Bush has said will be a multigenerational battle against Islamic terrorists.
Democrats have so far remained on the sidelines, sidestepping Republican
efforts to draw them into a fight over Mr. Bush’s leadership on national
security heading toward the midterm election. Democrats are rapt spectators,
however, shielded by the stern opposition to the president being expressed
by three Republicans with impeccable credentials on military matters:
Senators John McCain of Arizona, John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey
Graham of South Carolina. The three were joined on Thursday by Colin L.
Powell, formerly the secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, in challenging the administration’s approach.
It is one of those rare Congressional moments when the policy is as
monumental as the politics.
On one side are the Republican veterans of the uniformed services, arguing
that the president’s proposal would effectively gut the nearly 60-year-old
Geneva Conventions, sending a dark signal to the rest of the world and
leaving United States military without adequate protection against torture
On the other are the Bush administration and Republican leaders of both the
House and Senate who say new tools are urgently needed to pursue and
interrogate terror suspects and to protect the covert operatives who play an
increasingly important role in chasing them.
Republicans concede that the fight among themselves is a major political
distraction, particularly given the credentials of the Republican
opposition, led by Mr. McCain, the former prisoner of war in Vietnam who was
tortured in captivity.
“It is a big problem,” said Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois, a senior
House Republican. “These guys have a lot of weight and a lot of standing.
McCain is a tough guy to beat on this.”
But Mr. Bush, who visited the Capitol on Thursday to rally House Republicans
behind his approach, is also tough. He will no doubt do everything possible
to get a deal, if not on the floor of the Senate then in conference between
the House and the Senate. But the immediate result in political terms has
been to create a battle among Republicans about core principles less than
eight weeks before Election Day.
“This whole issue is going to send a signal about who America is in 2006,”
Mr. Graham said.
Brushing aside the objections of Mr. Bush and most of his Republican
colleagues in Congress, Mr. Warner led the Senate Armed Services Committee
to produce legislation on Thursday that would provide detainees with
protections beyond those sought by Mr. Bush, setting up a collision with the
House, where a measure approved by the administration is advancing.
House Republicans say the Senate plan is misguided and will hobble the
American military. Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California
and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it would lead to
“the lawyer brigade” being attached to combat troops to counsel detainees.
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the
Homeland Security Committee, said: “I just think John McCain is wrong on
this. If we capture bin Laden tomorrow and we have to hold his head under
water to find out when the next attack is going to happen, we ought to be
able to do it.”
Mr. McCain’s opponents acknowledge that, given his experiences, he is a
powerful advocate on this subject, but that the shadow war against
terrorists has new legal complexities.
“I have never led in combat, but I do have some experience with the law,”
said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a former State Supreme
Court justice who has jousted with Mr. McCain over the legislation.
There is no doubt that Mr. Cornyn and his fellow Republicans would much
rather be dueling with the Democrats over this issue, which they see as
their chief election-year advantage.
After their meeting with the president, House Republicans sought to play up
their differences with House Democrats on the detainee legislation although
the bill passed the Armed Services Committee on an overwhelmingly bipartisan
Republicans will also try to continue to pound Democrats on other security
measures, like legislation to authorize the administration’s eavesdropping
program. But the political power of that issue gets muddied as well because
some House and Senate Republicans want to impose more restrictions on the
program than the administration finds acceptable.
Recent polls continue to show Republicans with an advantage on security
issues, but they are mixed as to whether the president’s most recent push is
raising his popularity. In addition, widespread public dissatisfaction with
the war in Iraq is clouding election prospects for Republicans.
But with the focus on the treatment of detainees there is a potential
benefit for Republicans since it does at least temporarily change the
subject from Iraq.
Democrats say that no matter how bipartisan the opposition to the
administration’s tribunal plan, they expect that Republicans will try to
blame Democrats for any delay. They note that House Republicans have taken
to referring to bipartisan Senate legislation on immigration, a measure most
House Republicans abhor, as the Reid-Kennedy bill, named for the Democrats
Harry Reid of Nevada and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, despite the
substantial participation of Mr. McCain.
“At the end of the day, they will forget John McCain, Lindsey Graham and
John Warner and say it is all about the Democrats holding up President
Bush’s plan to make American safer,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of
Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
But Mr. Durbin said, “We are not going to take it sitting down.”