Bush's Bill Suffers a Torturous Day in Committee

As James Sensenbrenner tried to rustle up votes, his committee's Republicans had attendance and loyalty problems.
As James Sensenbrenner tried to rustle up votes, his committee's Republicans had attendance and loyalty problems. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 21, 2006

House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), fighting to preserve the use of harsh interrogation techniques, speaks with some authority on the subject: He was subjected to seven hours of cruel and unusual punishment as he tried to get the legislation through his committee yesterday.

First came the cruel: As the point man for the Bush administration's military-trials bill -- which would permit questioning methods some regard as torture -- Sensenbrenner saw the legislation come within one vote of collapsing in favor of a Democratic version, despite a six-vote Republican majority on the committee.

Then came the inhuman: Sensenbrenner's bill, in a second vote, failed by three votes when several of his fellow Republicans failed to show up for the roll call or voted with the Democrats.

And finally, the degrading: Sensenbrenner endured a walkout by committee Democrats, then went through the awkward process of restaging a series of votes until the result was more to his liking. Even then, President Bush's plan survived by a single vote.

"A good day's work for a good day's pay," the chairman said wryly when he finally gaveled the session to a close.

It was, in all, a tough day for the jowly, red-faced chairman, who had insisted that the legislation go through his committee against House leaders' wishes. Nor was it one of the finest days for House Republicans, who proved that, on the subject of torture, they could tie themselves in knots just as easily as their colleagues in the Senate, where the Bush bill is in a stalemate with one backed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and friends.

Confronted with one of the weightiest issues of the times -- whether to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions' torture prohibitions -- the committee members quickly retreated to the familiar terrain of extraneous and off-point arguments.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), leading the debate for the Democrats, asked to put into the record an article written by a former prisoner of the KGB about techniques such as sleep deprivation that the Bush plan could allow.

"Objection," the chairman growled, without explaining himself or looking up from his newspaper.

But the talk of sleep deprivation caused Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) to stir. "Detainees are entitled to a full eight hours of sleep and cannot be awakened for interrogation," he said. "The average inmate gained about 15 pounds, was receiving better medical care by far, dental care, you name it: being given a Koran, they pray five times a day, there's an arrow on the floor in each of the rooms . . . so they know which way Mecca is so they can pray accordingly."

Sensenbrenner responded with a deep cough. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) set about building a straw man. "We just heard that not guaranteeing eight hours of sleep in Guantanamo has been interpreted by some as inhumane," he said.

"Who?" demanded Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), for nobody had said such a thing.

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