GOP Seeks Advantage In Ruling On Trials

By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Republicans yesterday looked to wrest a political victory from a legal defeat in the Supreme Court, serving notice to Democrats that they must back President Bush on how to try suspects at Guantanamo Bay or risk being branded as weak on terrorism.

In striking down the military commissions Bush sought for trials of suspected members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the high court Thursday invited Congress to establish new rules and put the issue prominently before the public four months before the midterm elections. As the White House and lawmakers weighed next steps, House GOP leaders signaled they are ready to use this week's turn of events as a political weapon.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's comment Thursday that the court decision "affirms the American ideal that all are entitled to the basic guarantees of our justice system." That statement, Boehner said, amounted to Pelosi's advocating "special privileges for terrorists."

Similar views ricocheted around conservative talk radio -- Rush Limbaugh called Pelosi's comments "deranged" on his show Thursday -- and Republican strategists said they believed that the decision presented Bush a chance to put Democrats on the spot while uniting a Republican coalition that lately has been splintered on immigration, spending and other issues.

"It would be good politics to have a debate about this if Democrats are going to argue for additional rights for terrorists," said Terry Nelson, a prominent GOP political strategist who was political director for Bush's reelection campaign in 2004.

Mindful of this thinking, Democrats were measured in their comments about how to respond to the ruling, which held that Bush's policy was not authorized by law and violated the Geneva Conventions.

Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, said Democrats "want to work with" the administration in fashioning new rules for terrorism suspects, and he dismissed Boehner's comments as a sign of desperation. "[Bush] is not a king -- he has to follow the law," Daly said. "That's all we're saying."

Democrats seemed to gain some support from a few Senate Republicans, who said politics should not dictate how Congress responds to the Supreme Court. "This should not be a party fight," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "I'm a proud Republican senator, but my nation needs both parties working in collaboration with the executive branch to solve the military commission problem, and both parties will be rewarded by the public if we're seen as working for the common good."

The issue is not without complexity for Republicans. A Washington Post-ABC poll this week suggested that while Americans continue to favor holding suspects at the U.S. military installation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they are leery of an administration policy that has resulted in almost all of the 450 detainees being held without charges. Of those polled, 71 percent said the detainees should be either given POW status or charged with a crime.

In many respects, the Guantanamo Bay facility has become an albatross for the Bush administration since its creation in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a prison for terrorism suspects picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Bush signed an executive order in November 2001 establishing military commissions to try the inmates, but the process has been in a legal limbo and no suspect has gone through a full trial.

Meanwhile, the United States has attracted intense international criticism for holding the detainees in limbo, and Bush has said repeatedly that he wants to close the prison.

Some lawmakers want Congress to endorse a plan to have the commissions operate by the rules of a regular court-martial, which would give the detainees more rights than they would have under the current commission structure. But administration lawyers have been concerned that it would be difficult to win convictions under that scenario, in large measure because the standard of proof would be higher.

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