WASHINGTON – A Republican senator who opposes President Bush's plan for prosecuting terror suspects said Wednesday he would move ahead with rival legislation in a potential challenge to the White House and Senate GOP leaders.
Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said his panel would meet Thursday to consider a bipartisan bill he has written as an alternative to the administration's proposal. However, Warner, R-Va., did not rule out a compromise with the White House before his committee holds its closed-door meeting.
Warner and others have said the administration's legislation would unnecessarily revise the nation's obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets standards for the treatment of military prisoners.
Warner's decision to press ahead without GOP consensus came as the House Armed Services Committee approved the Bush administration's proposal. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pushed through a bill that largely mimicked the White House legislation, including a provision that would bar a defendant's access to evidence used against them if doing so would expose classified information.
A substitute amendment by Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, top Democrat on the panel, was defeated along party lines.
While the House is expected to pass the legislation next week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has held off scheduling a vote. Warner's resistance to certain provisions could expose GOP fissures on the Senate floor just weeks from midterm elections.
"I believe that once Republicans get on the same page we will find ourselves in disagreement with some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supports the administration's bill. "But I don't see the need to unnecessarily have intramural fights if we can avoid them."
CIA Director Michael Hayden and acting Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury met again with Senate Republicans on Wednesday to defend the administration's position. But Warner and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emerged from the meeting to say that no deal had been struck.
McCain, Warner and Graham said they were not backing down on their opposition to White House provisions that would bar a defendant's access to evidence if it is classified and would redefine prisoner treatment standards under the Geneva Conventions.
The administration proposal would rule that an existing ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment meets the nation's obligations under the treaty. Officials have said they believe Common Article 3, the section of the conventions on prisoner treatment, are too vague.
"We don't want the Common Article 3 amended," said McCain. "Then every nation in the world will amend Common Article 3 to their satisfaction. Then the next time a special forces soldier is captured out of uniform, then that government will have their own interpretation."
Cornyn said he did not think the plan would expose U.S. troops because "Al Qaeda doesn't take any prisoners. The prisoners they do take they behead."
Separately, the administration's drive to preserve the president's power over its domestic wiretapping program hit snags in the House.
The House Judiciary Committee abruptly canceled its scheduled vote on a bill by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., amid tense negotiations between GOP leaders who endorse it and an administration that says it places too many restrictions on the program.
The administration made progress, though, when the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a party-line endorsement to a wiretapping bill favored by the White House.
Sponsored by Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the bill would submit the warrantless wiretapping program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for a one-time constitutional review. It also would extend from three days to seven days the time allowed for emergency surveillance before a warrant application is submitted and approved by that court.
The administration has said Bush will sign the bill if it's passed unamended.
The chances of that happening are far from certain. Specter's committee also approved several competing versions of his bill, and the chairman indicated that provisions from one of them, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., might be included as an amendment during debate by the full Senate.
Both bills are expected to receive House and Senate votes as early as next week.