Are republican Senators taking on Bush?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

September 15, 2006
An Unexpected Collision Over Detainees

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 president¹s 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. Bush¹s 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 administration¹s 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 president¹s 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 and mistreatment.

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 

³It is a big problem,² said Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois, a senior 
House Republican. ³These guys have a lot of weight and a lot of standing. McCain
is a tough guy to beat on this.²

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.

³This whole issue is going to send a signal about who America is in 2006,² 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 ³the lawyer brigade² 
being attached to combat troops to counsel detainees.

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and chairman of the 
Homeland Security Committee, said: ³I 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.²

Mr. McCain¹s 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.

³I have never led in combat, but I do have some experience with the law,² 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 vote.

Republicans will also try to continue to pound Democrats on other security 
measures, like legislation to authorize the administration¹s 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 president¹s 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 
administration¹s 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.

³At 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 Bush¹s plan to
make American safer,² said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 
Democrat in the Senate.

But Mr. Durbin said, ³We are not going to take it sitting down.²

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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