WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans pushed ahead Monday with legislation that would set rules for the treatment and interrogation of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, despite a White House veto threat.
The Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney (search), is working to kill the amendments that GOP Sens. John McCain (search) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (search) of South Carolina want to tack onto a bill setting Defense Department policy for next year.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Graham, who spent 20 years as an Air Force lawyer, introduced the legislation Monday. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., has endorsed the effort.
"What we're trying to do here is make sure there are clear and exact standards set for interrogation of prisoners," McCain said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., shot back, "I reject the idea that this Defense Department and our Army and our military is out of control, is confused about what their powers and duties and responsibilities are."
Republicans said the measures were not toned down even though White House lobbying against them intensified late last week.
Cheney met with the three Republican lawmakers just off the Senate floor for about 30 minutes Thursday evening to object to detainee legislation. McCain said the meeting was the second in as many weeks between Cheney and top Armed Services members over administration concerns about the defense bill.
The administration said in a statement last week that President Bush's advisers would recommend a veto of the overall bill if amendments were added that restricted the president's ability to conduct the war on terrorism and protect Americans.
"They don't think congressional involvement is necessary," McCain said in an interview.
Senate aides estimate that nearly a dozen Republicans could be on board — which would be more than enough for the amendments to pass if Democrats support them as well.
Democrats have long criticized the administration on detainee treatment and have put forth their own amendments, including one by Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on Armed Services, that would set up an independent commission to review detention and interrogation practices.
The White House opposes it, and Senate Republicans say they are pushing their detainee legislation in part as an alternative to the creation of such an independent panel.
"I think it's important to those who want to consider that commission to see that some members are taking very affirmative steps" on the detainee issue, Warner told reporters.
Talk of legislation regulating U.S. treatment of terror suspects has percolated on Capitol Hill since last year, when the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq surfaced.
But the effort by leading Republicans to standardize treatment of terror suspects has gained steam over the past few months. Criticism by human-rights groups and lawmakers over the military's detainee camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reached a fever pitch this spring amid fresh allegations of abuse and torture there.
One of McCain's amendments would make interrogation techniques outlined in the Army field manual — and any future versions of it — the standard for treatment of all detainees in the Defense Department's custody. The United States also would have to register all detainees in Defense Department facilities with the Red Cross to ensure all are accounted for.
Warner introduced a watered-down version of McCain's amendment that would give the defense secretary the authority to set standardized rules over detention and interrogation of terror suspects, but he denied that he offered the alternative because of administration pressure.
Another McCain amendment would expressly prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody no matter where they are held.
Graham's amendment would define "enemy combatant" and put into law the procedures the Bush administration already has in place for prosecuting detainees at Guantanamo. That framework includes the existance of military tribunals to determine who qualifies as an "enemy combatant" and parole-like boards to judge annually whether detainees continue to pose threats to the United States.
The amendment would, in effect, provide a congressional stamp of approval to the Bush administration's legal policies, including those for holding detainees indefinitely.
"This legitimizes what the courts have been telling us to do," Graham said.
McCain's amendments have the support of 14 retired military officers, including former Rep. Douglas "Pete" Peterson, D-Fla., a Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war.