By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist signaled yesterday that he and other White House allies will filibuster a bill dealing with the interrogation and prosecution of detainees if they cannot persuade a rival group of Republicans to rewrite key provisions opposed by President Bush.
Frist's chief of staff, Eric M. Ueland, called the dissidents' bill "dead."
With Congress scheduled to adjourn in nine days, delaying tactics such as a filibuster could kill the drive to enact detainee legislation before the Nov. 7 elections, a White House priority. Bush faced still more problems in the House, where GOP moderates Christopher Shays (Conn.), Michael N. Castle (Del.), Jim Leach (Iowa) and James T. Walsh (N.Y.) publicly threw their support behind the bill opposed by the White House. The four Republicans told Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) that any House bill must maintain the dissidents' principles.
On another front, legislation to authorize Bush's warrantless wiretapping program may be in more jeopardy. Frist said yesterday that he referred the warrantless surveillance matter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for further review and would not bring it up for Senate consideration until next week.
Yesterday's actions significantly dimmed prospects that Congress can complete its national security agenda before adjournment. Frist (R-Tenn.) acknowledged that a majority of the 100 senators back the rival group on military commissions but that there are not enough to block a filibuster, which requires a super-majority of 60.
Senate and administration negotiators talked throughout the day, but no real progress was apparent. "It could all come together in a matter of hours, or it could drag out for another week or so," said John Ullyot, spokesman for Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.).
The sharp rhetoric of last week was replaced yesterday by softer language from both the Bush administration and the three Republican senators leading the opposition to its proposals: Warner, John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).
But Frist struck a more jarring tone, telling reporters that the trio's bill is unacceptable despite its majority support.
For a bill to pass, Frist said, "it's got to preserve our intelligence programs," including the CIA's aggressive interrogation techniques, and it must "protect classified information from terrorists." He said that "the president's bill achieves those two goals" but that "the Warner-McCain-Graham bill falls short."
The disagreement centers on the Geneva Conventions, which say wartime detainees must be "treated humanely." Bush backs language saying the United States complies so long as CIA interrogators abide by a 2005 law barring "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of captives. Warner and his allies say they are concerned that Bush's approach would invite nations to interpret the Geneva Conventions in lax ways that could lead to abusive treatment of captured U.S. troops.
The Warner contingent also opposes Bush's bid to allow detainees to be convicted on secret evidence they are not allowed to see.
Yesterday, Warner said negotiators were considering revising the federal War Crimes Act to clarify acceptable interrogation methods by nonmilitary officials. His bill embraces a similar approach, which would sidestep direct references to the Geneva Conventions' meaning. It was unclear whether the White House would accept such language.
Frist also surprised senators yesterday on the warrantless wiretapping issue, sending surveillance legislation already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to the intelligence committee for further review. With one week left to consider the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), an intelligence committee member, said passage before the election would be "extremely ambitious."
The intelligence committee is considered hostile to legislation worked out between Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the White House. That bill would allow but not order the administration to submit its warrantless surveillance program to a secret national security court for constitutional review. The program involves monitoring overseas phone calls and e-mails of some Americans when one party is suspected of links to terrorism.
Three Republicans on the intelligence committee -- Snowe, Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) -- have co-authored competing legislation that would give Congress considerably more oversight of the program.
Two House committees will draft National Security Agency eavesdropping bills this week that would take still another tack on surveillance, but those measures also face resistance, acknowledged Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), the primary author of the measures.