Thursday, September 14, 2006
WASHINGTON - A rebellious Senate committee defied President Bush on Thursday and approved a bill on the treatment of terrorism detainees that he has vowed to block, escalating a Republican civil war over the issue in the middle of congressional election campaigns.
Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, pushed the measure through his panel by a 15-9 vote, with Warner and three other Republican lawmakers joining opposition Democrats.
The tally set the stage for a showdown on the Senate floor as early as next week.
The vote came hours after former Secretary of State Colin Powell protested harsh interrogations of terror suspects as the president lobbied personally for it on Capitol Hill.
“I will resist any bill that does not enable this program to go forward with legal clarity,” Bush told reporters back at the White House after his meeting with lawmakers.
The latest sign of GOP division over White House security policy came Thursday in a letter that Powell sent to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of three senators taking on the White House.
Powell said Congress must not pass Bush’s proposal to redefine U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions, a treaty that sets international standards for the treatment of prisoners of war.
White House spokesman Tony Snow, asked if Powell was merely confused about the White House’s goals, said: “Yes.”
Pressed further on why Powell might write such a letter, Snow said: “We didn’t hear from him, so I don’t know.”
The campaign-season development accompanied Bush’s visit to Capitol Hill, where he conferred behind closed doors with House Republicans. His plan would narrow the U.S. legal interpretation of the Geneva Conventions treaty in a bid to allow tougher interrogations and shield U.S. personnel from being prosecuted for war crimes.
Puts troops at risk, Powell argues“The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” said Powell, who served under Bush and is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.”
Bush said that “there’s all kinds of letters coming out” and he cited letters from the Pentagon that support his argument.
Snow said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has weighed in on the issue.
“In a case where the treaty’s terms are inherently vague, it is appropriate for a state to look to its own legal framework, precedents, concepts and norms in interpreting those terms and carrying out its international obligations,” Snow quoted Rice as saying in a letter to lawmakers.
“Such practice in the application of a treaty is an accepted reference point in international law.”
Republican dissatisfaction with the administration’s security proposals is becoming more prominent as the midterm election season has arrived.
The Bush White House wants Congress to approve greater executive power to spy on, imprison and interrogate terrorism suspects.
Leaving his closed-door meeting with the House GOP caucus, Bush said he “reminded them that the most important job of government is to protect the homeland.”
In an effort to drum up support, the White House released a second letter to lawmakers signed by the military’s top uniformed lawyers. Saying they wanted to “clarify” past testimony on Capitol Hill in which they opposed the administration’s plan, the service lawyers wrote that they “do not object” to sections of Bush’s proposal for the treatment of detainees and found the provisions “helpful.”
Two congressional aides who favor McCain’s plan said the military lawyers signed that letter after refusing to endorse an earlier one offered by the Pentagon’s general counsel, William Haynes, that expressed more forceful support for Bush’s plan.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Asked if Haynes had encouraged them to write the letter, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, “Not that I’m aware of.”
Bush's existing measure ruled illegalBush 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.
For Bush, the election season visit capped a week of high-profile administration pressure to rescue bills mired in turf battles and privacy concerns. It also gave GOP leaders a chance to press for loyalty among Republicans confronted on the campaign trail by war-weary voters.
“I have not really seen anybody running away from the president,” House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters this week when asked about the caucus’ split. “Frankly, I think that would be a bad idea.”
Reuters contributed to this report.