WASHINGTON – Congressional negotiators are feeling heat from the White House and constituents as they consider whether to back a Senate-approved ban on torturing detainees in U.S. custody or weaken it as the White House prefers.
Led by Vice President Dick Cheney (search), the Bush administration is floating a proposal that would allow the president to exempt covert agents outside the Defense Department from the prohibition.
Meanwhile, some newspapers are calling for lawmakers to support a provision by Sen. John McCain (search) that would ban the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held.
"There's a lot of public pressure to retain the language intact. At the same time, there's pressure from the vice president's office to modify it," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, which supports McCain's provision.
Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss (search) met last week with McCain, R-Ariz., and suggested excluding from the torture ban overseas clandestine counterterrorism operations by agencies other than the Pentagon "if the president determines that such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack."
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said, "The president's made our position very clear: We do not condone torture, nor would he ever authorize the use of torture."
McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said he rejected the administration's alternative language because "that would basically allow the CIA to engage in torture."
It's unclear just how much influence McCain has in the House-Senate negotiations to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the $445 billion defense bill. McCain won't be directly involved in those negotiations.
Sen. Ted Stevens (search), R-Alaska, and Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., who chair Congress' defense spending subcommittees, will be among the leaders of those talks in coming weeks.
Young has said the United States has no obligation to terrorists, and he and other top House Republicans have signaled they will try to change the Senate-approved language.
Stevens, who voted against it in the Senate, has said the language is too broad in applying to agents who work undercover. He has said the administration shares that concern.
"I still believe we have to take into account the situation that clandestine people find themselves in," Stevens said Tuesday. But he said he had not seen the vice president's language, so he couldn't say whether he would support it.
Top Democratic bargainers — Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania — support McCain's language, but their clout is limited because they are in the minority party.
Earlier this month, the Senate added the torture prohibition and the interrogation standards to its defense bill on a 90-9 vote, even though the Bush administration threatened a veto if the president's ability to conduct the war was restricted.
The House bill did not include McCain's provision, which also requires U.S. service members to follow the Army Field Manual when imprisoning and questioning suspects in the war on terrorism.
In the weeks since the Senate vote, newspapers from Alabama to Texas to California have called on their lawmakers to support McCain's language. Several took particular aim at hometown Republicans leading the negotiations.
"Sen. Stevens is wrong and should follow the lead of Sen. McCain, who speaks firsthand of the wrongs of torture," the Anchorage Daily News said Monday.
Said the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 16: "Young and his fellow conferees have an obligation to rise above partisanship and uphold principles that should be beyond debate in a civilized society."