By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007
A Republican filibuster in the Senate yesterday shot down a bipartisan effort to restore the right of terrorism suspects to contest in federal courts their detention and treatment, underscoring the Democratic-led Congress's difficulty with terrorism issues.
The 56 to 43 vote fell short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and move to a final vote on the amendment to the Senate's annual defense policy bill. But the measure did garner the support of six Republicans, a small victory for its supporters. A similar proposal drew 48 "yea" votes last September.
The detainee rights amendment was an effort to reverse a provision in last year's Military Commissions Act that suspended the writ of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other offshore prisons.
The Supreme Court had previously ruled that such detainees did have the right to appeal their detention in federal court, but the court invited Congress to weigh in on the issue. At the urging of the Bush administration, the Republican-controlled Congress last year voted to sharply limit detainee access to the courts. Since then, the high court has agreed to hear in its upcoming term another legal challenge concerning the habeas corpus rights of detainees at Guantanamo.
The authors of last year's bill said that advocates of such rights would open the federal courts to endless lawsuits from the nation's worst enemies. "To start that process would be an absolute disaster for this country," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force Reserve lawyer who was instrumental in crafting the provision in question in last year's bill.
But advocates of the rights, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), argued that Congress should right last year's historic wrong.
The Senate's action "calls into question the United States' historic role of defender of human rights in the world," Leahy said. "It accomplishes what opponents could never accomplish on the battlefield, whittling away our own liberties."