GOP Upbeat on Terror-Trial Bill

By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 23, 2006

House GOP leaders signaled yesterday that they are satisfied with the main elements of a bill on military trials negotiated Thursday by dissident Republican senators and White House officials, and they predicted that Congress will pass the measure before adjourning next week.

"We're going to get this thing across the finish line," Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told reporters, less than 24 hours after giving the measure a much cooler reception.

The House response all but settles an intraparty squabble and puts congressional Democrats in a difficult spot six weeks before elections in which they hope to wrest many House and Senate seats from the GOP. Some of the Democrats' liberal constituents dislike the bill, viewing it as a green light for President Bush to resume a CIA policy of interrogating foreign terrorism suspects with harsh techniques that some critics consider torture. But to oppose the compromise, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has embraced, would subject them to charges of being soft on terrorism, several analysts said.

Many Democrats would undoubtedly like to change the bill, "but probably those in competitive races will just have to stay behind McCain," said political scientist Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. A House Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss political strategy, said: "We had really hoped the White House had caved, but it's looking more and more like the senators caved."

The compromise bill on rules for the trials, known as military "commissions," outlines the kinds of detainee mistreatment by CIA interrogators that would constitute crimes. It bars the administration from reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions but gives the president a dominant role in deciding which interrogation methods would be permitted.

Hunter, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, raised concerns Thursday about the bill's prohibition against convicting defendants with classified information they are not allowed to see. Yesterday, Hunter said he was satisfied because the suspects would not learn the identity of undercover officers who gathered the crucial evidence.

With Congress planning to adjourn by Sept. 30, it is possible that last-minute snags could complicate or even prevent the bill's passage. But top Democrats in both houses indicated that they will not stand in the bill's path and risk being blamed for its demise.

"I will need to look at the final bill carefully, but elements of the compromise I have seen are promising," said Ike Skelton (Mo.), the Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat.

Republicans, meanwhile, signaled plans to trumpet their newfound unity and attack Democrats even if only a handful oppose the bill. The office of House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement saying that "while Democrats talk out of both sides of their mouth, Republicans are working together . . . to provide predictability and clear guidance to both our military and civilian personnel so they may continue to keep Americans safe."

Until the breakthrough was announced Thursday, Democrats had let Republicans fight among themselves as they backed McCain and Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) in their struggle with the White House. Now that McCain and his fellow dissidents have joined hands with Bush, it will be difficult to attack the deal, Democrats acknowledged.

That is not sitting well with liberal activists, whose energy will be important to Democrats on Election Day. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, called the legislation a "get out of jail free" card for the administration's "top torture officials." She said it would render the Geneva Conventions' protections "irrelevant and unenforceable."

Democratic political strategists at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research encouraged Democrats to challenge Republicans on national security issues. Jeremy Rosner, senior vice president, said polling suggests that Bush's focus on security matters in the past weeks may have helped his personal approval ratings, but it has harmed Republican lawmakers by elevating anxieties over Iraq.

"There is much more room than people have guessed for Democrats to engage on this issue, to get heard and even to win," he stressed.

A few liberal Democratic lawmakers attacked the bill yesterday, but none signaled all-out plans to try to kill it. "By using legal mumbo jumbo to obscure the fact that the CIA will continue to be allowed to use torture and will actually be insulated from legal liability for previous acts of torture, President Bush is proceeding ever further down the slippery slope that Colin Powell warned us will endanger American troops in the field by encouraging other countries to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

White House aides are practically daring such Democrats to oppose the legislation. "Now the test is for the Democrats," a senior administration official said. "What are they going to do? . . . This does show that there's a consistent voice now on the subject coming out of our party."

But some conservatives remain angry with McCain and his allies. One Republican leader called them the "it's all about me" senators.

"At a time when we were supposed to be showing unity, we wasted a week on something that could have been worked out behind closed doors," one leadership aide said.

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

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