Specter's Role in Passage Of Detainee Bill Disputed

The White House pushed hard for the right to detain enemy combatants indefinitely at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The White House pushed hard for the right to detain enemy combatants indefinitely at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

The news reached Democrats working on the military commissions bill in the Senate cloakroom the morning of Sept. 27. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a sponsor of two amendments giving detainees a right to challenge their detention or treatment in federal court, had decided to bring the more extreme amendment to a vote.

Democrats had lined up behind Specter because the Judiciary Committee chairman told them he shared their antipathy to language in the bill stripping detainees of habeas corpus rights. But the amendment Specter put forward was defeated 51 to 48, allowing the bill to win congressional approval without change. It handed the White House an important pre-election victory.

The last-minute maneuvering before the Sept. 28 vote remains a hot topic of debate among lobbyists, lawmakers and staff members. They are wondering if Specter, as several Judiciary Committee staff members privately asserted at the time, was pressured into discarding a less extreme and more politically palatable amendment at the Bush administration's request, in favor of an alternative more likely to be defeated.

Specter says that he was not, and that he has no reason to believe the less extreme alternative he sponsored but withheld from a vote -- allowing detainees limited access to the courts -- might have won. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) backs Specter's account, but some other sources on Capitol Hill dispute it.

The stakes were considerable: The White House had been waging an intense three-month effort, set off by an adverse Supreme Court decision in June, to win explicit congressional support for the right to detain indefinitely, and without guaranteed recourse to the courts, people -- including U.S. citizens -- who are designated as "unlawful enemy combatants."

The White House was keen to secure the bill's speedy passage, because officials were worried that Congress would be more reluctant to strip detainees of their rights after the Nov. 7 midterm elections. Keeping the Senate bill free of amendments was key to avoiding a wrangle with the House, which had passed the administration-backed version and was set to leave for a recess Sept. 29.

Questions about Specter's role in the last-minute maneuvering arose in part because he had taken a maverick position before -- and then backed President Bush's policy on the floor or in his votes.

Specter said in December, for example, that he had "no doubt" the administration's warrantless surveillance program for terrorism suspects was inappropriate and should not be condoned. This summer, he sponsored a bill to legalize the program by providing for limited judicial review. Since 2001, Specter's support for Bush initiatives in Congress has fluctuated between 85 and 89 percent, according to Congressional Quarterly.

On the detainee bill, Frist had make clear his desire to ensure that no amendment passed, spokeswoman Amy Call said. She said "we were worried about both" of Specter's amendments.

The more extreme version would have deleted the bill's suspension of habeas corpus rights. The less extreme alternative, which Specter co-sponsored with Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Gordon Smith (R.-N.H.), would have allowed detainees to file a single habeas corpus petition after a year of detention.

"The compromise looked like it had a strong chance of success," and it would have given detainees at least "a one-chance shot to appeal their innocence," said Jennifer Daskal, U.S. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Rather than doing the right thing and allowing the amendment to go forward, the strategy seems to have been to put forward an amendment doomed to defeat," she said.

Frist was so determined to help the White House that on Sept. 26, he told a group of GOP lawmakers at a private meeting, in the presence of White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley, that no amendment that could pass would be allowed to come to a vote, according to one person present. Call declined to comment on a private meeting.

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