In an Awkward Dance, the President Is Forced to Follow

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

Nearly five months ago, President Bush issued a formal threat to veto legislation barring torture, and for the past five months he has been trying to find a way to avoid doing just that. The price: giving Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) the upper hand.

Once again the awkward, freighted Bush-McCain relationship with all its history of rivalry and resentment took center stage in American politics yesterday, as the second-place finisher in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries forced the first-place finisher to swallow something he once opposed.

Bush's agreement with McCain over compromise language for the torture ban gave the president enough to say he had gotten what he really cared about -- namely, some measure of legal protection for U.S. agents accused of mistreating prisoners. But most everywhere in Washington outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the deal was seen as a victory for the senator who faced down the president.

"The veto threat, I thought, never should have been made public," said former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.). "I didn't think that was very strategic." In going up against McCain, the White House faced someone "absolutely dogged in his determination," Rudman said, and so in vowing to veto the legislation "somebody made a misjudgment."

This is not the first time McCain has forced his will on a reluctant president. In Bush's first term, the senator and his allies pushed Congress to rewrite campaign finance laws in hopes of curbing the influence of big money in politics. Bush, who had not supported the measure, signed it under pressure. Earlier this year, McCain, without White House sanction, led a group of senators on both sides of the aisle in reaching an agreement to confirm some Bush judicial nominees while rejecting others.

The complicated relationship between the two men has swung through many phases during Bush's presidency, from the chilly early days through a rapprochement last year when McCain joined Bush on the campaign trail. As McCain prepares his own campaign to succeed Bush in 2008, many in the White House continue to eye him warily. But Bush strategist Mark McKinnon has said he would be willing to help the senator, which some advisers consider a sign that the president has made his peace with McCain.

In hindsight, it may have been Vice President Cheney, more than Bush, who provoked the confrontation that led to yesterday's truce. When McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and other Republican senators proposed outlawing the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, Cheney launched a personal lobbying campaign to block it on the grounds that it could diminish the U.S. campaign against terrorists.

McCain responded with muscle, pushing his legislation through the Senate in October with a 90 to 9 vote -- enough to override a presidential veto. White House spokesmen emphasized that Bush did not condone torture, but his strategists were eager to avoid a scenario in which he would issue the first veto of his presidency to strike down a bill barring inhuman treatment. Cheney, who had become a lightning rod on the issue, withdrew from direct talks and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, a low-key lawyer, was sent in to broker a deal. "Hadley's more diplomatic," a fellow senior official said.

By the time Hadley and McCain met over doughnuts and coffee in the senator's office Wednesday morning for their fourth and final negotiating session, it was clear the imperative was to find accord. The White House had agreed to nearly everything McCain wanted but was focused particularly on a single sentence intended to protect interrogators from legal liability. As the talks continued, the House was preparing a nonbinding vote in support of McCain's proposal. By evening, the House weighed in, 308 to 122 -- another veto-proof majority.

"The White House gave in," one Republican congressional aide said. "They were forced to back down, and the vote in the House was just additional pressure."

Meeting with reporters in the Roosevelt Room after the deal was announced yesterday, Hadley insisted the White House got what it really wanted, noting that the original McCain proposal had no protection in it. "There's been a lot of things in the mix -- things he wanted we couldn't do, things we wanted he couldn't do," Hadley said. "It's been a long back-and-forth."

Hadley expressed no regrets over the veto threat. "You judge the tactics by the outcome," he said, "and we've got a good outcome."

In their public session together in the Oval Office, Bush and McCain, joined by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), made a point of collegiality. Bush called McCain "a good man who honors the values of America" and declared himself "happy to work with him to achieve a common objective." McCain responded by thanking Bush no fewer than six times, praising the president's "active participation" in trying to "resolve this very difficult issue."

White House officials made little secret of their relief to have the issue behind them. As for McCain, they noted gratefully that he went out of his way to avoid exacerbating the dispute. "He could have really torqued it up," one aide said, "and he didn't."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company