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Tribunal Dispute Could Ruin GOP Strategy
Bush-McCain Standoff Over Terrorism Trials Overshadows Electoral Battle

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

Congressional Republicans had carefully orchestrated the finale of the legislative year to be a showdown with Democrats over which party is best equipped to keep the country safe, a handpicked fight on traditional Republican turf.

But the high-stakes standoff between President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over military tribunals could ruin that legislative strategy, political analysts and strategists say. Instead of fighting Democrats, Republicans find themselves in the middle of an intraparty struggle between an embattled president and two of the most respected figures in their party, McCain and his ally on the issue, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell.

"Purely from a strategic point of view, this is another mess," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Every time Republicans think they have an issue to unite them and divide the Democrats, the Republicans end up spending most of the time fighting among themselves."

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio agreed: "If the goal of this process was to show stark differences between Republicans and Democrats, what is being portrayed is stark differences between George Bush and some Republicans. From that standpoint, you aren't hitting the message mark."

When Congress returned from its August recess, GOP leaders understood that they had four weeks to regain political momentum or face the real prospect of losing control of one or both chambers of Congress. Two court decisions seemed to give them an opening: the Supreme Court's ruling that Bush's military tribunals are unconstitutional and a Detroit federal judge's opinion that the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program is also illegal.

By codifying the president's military commissions and ratifying what they called his "terrorist surveillance program," Republican leaders had hoped to dare Democrats to vote against programs framed as insurance policies against terrorism.

It has not worked out that way. Three Republican senators -- McCain, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (Va.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) -- have stood in the way of Bush's tribunal plan, saying it violates basic principles of American fairness and would endanger U.S. troops. A rebellion of civil-liberties-oriented Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee has stymied legislation that would allow warrantless wiretapping to continue. At a closed-door pep rally with Republicans on Thursday, Bush received pointed questions on both policy initiatives, according to participants.

"Congress needs to give this the intensity of consideration necessary," said Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.), a supporter of both programs. "We are not going to be led around by the nose."

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged: "It's the legislative process. It's never predictable."

But Boehner and other Republicans remain confident that they are on the right track. Republicans point to recent polls showing a slight uptick in the president's popularity and say that the focus on national security issues is working. A spate of new polling also indicates that the race between Republicans and Democrats for control of Congress has tightened slightly, although Democrats still maintain a lead.

Indeed, Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan congressional analyst, said any day the media is not focused on Iraq is a good day for Republicans. For most voters, he said, the tribunal flap will be seen as politicians fighting with politicians -- "not exactly man bites dog," but a good diversion from troubling war news.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) noted that the unfavorable political landscape leaves GOP leaders little choice but to fight it out on defense and terrorism.

"People aren't paying attention to the economy. We've given up on immigration. We need to send people home with some significant accomplishments, and we have no other choice," LaHood said. "We have no other issue."

But misgivings over the agenda set out by the president and GOP leaders are growing. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) said he told Bush on Thursday that he should heed the military's top uniformed lawyers, who have opposed some provisions of the president's tribunal plan. Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), one of several moderate Northeasterners in tough reelection campaigns, said he has no problem with Bush's bills. He is likely to vote against them.

The problem, Lungren said, is that the complexity of the tribunal and wiretapping issues do not lend themselves to the quick action Bush wants.

"This is a big deal to drop in our laps," he added. "There is some discomfort with the time period we've been given."

Then there's McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who spent years as a captive of the North Vietnamese.

"If Americans know anything about John McCain, it's the guy was tortured. People listen to him on this issue," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College who studies House Republicans.

Last week, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) did his best to ignore McCain's position on the tribunals and to blame Democrats for the stalemate. But Democrats are using McCain and his allies as a shield.

"Instead of picking fights with Colin Powell, John McCain and other military experts, President Bush should change course," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Friday.

Fabrizio and other analysts said that argument is smart politics.

"It appears John McCain has given Democrats body armor against Republican attacks," Pitney said.

Moreover, the showdown between Bush and McCain is grabbing the spotlight from Republican initiatives that were supposed to undergird their case that they are the stronger party on national and homeland security. Just Thursday, the House passed legislation that would authorize the construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, while the Senate approved a long-promised port security bill. Both actions were buried by media coverage of the tribunal battle.

And the intraparty fights over tribunals and wiretapping are likely to dominate Congress until the lawmakers adjourn for their campaigns at month's end. That could swamp any uptick that Bush and the GOP enjoyed before the fights broke out.

"Even the best start with a bad finish doesn't help," Fabrizio said.

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