WASHINGTON – A top Senate Republican opposing President Bush's plan for handling terrorism suspects expressed tempered optimism Tuesday that the two sides could reach an accord on that key piece of the administration's anti-terror agenda before the November elections.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., declined to discuss the latest White House offer, which was sent to Capitol Hill late Monday. Warner said only that discussions were "constructive" and that he held "ray of optimism" an agreement would come soon.
"We're at a juncture in negotiations" and "progress is being made in good faith," Warner told reporters.
The White House has submitted a revised proposal to "clarify" the nation's treaty obligations and satisfy objections by Warner and others who say the president is trying to redefine U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, which sets the international standard for prisoners of war. The two sides were deadlocked in negotiations when the White House sent its latest revision.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in New York for meetings at the United Nations, predicted Tuesday that President Bush and Congress would find language for interrogation and treatment of terror suspects that "gives the professionals, the people who actually interrogate, clarity on what is legal and what is not."
"I do believe that the president and the Congress can work together to get a law that allows us to get the information we need legally and within our treaty obligations to protect the American people and to protect people abroad," Rice said on NBC's "Today" show. "Nobody wants us to give up the methods and the program that has produced information that stopped attacks on the U.S. and abroad."
While no details have been divulged, the change in rhetoric was in stark contrast to last week when the two sides began counting votes and turned to the press to plead their case. And it came amid indications that Bush's plan was in increasing trouble in the both chambers of the GOP-run Congress.
"We share the president's goal of enacting legislation preserving an effective CIA program to make us safe, upholding Geneva Convention protections for our troops, and passing constitutional muster," said Sen. Lindsey Graham in a statement Monday.
Graham, R-S.C., helped lead the charge against the administration's bill, alongside Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and John McCain, a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War.
The Senate Armed Services Committee last week passed the senators' proposal by a 15-9 vote, with mostly Democratic support. The president's measure would go further, allowing classified evidence to be withheld from defendants in terror trials and allowing coerced testimony. Bush also favors a narrower interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that would make it harder to prosecute U.S. interrogators for using harsh techniques.
House and Senate leadership have delayed plans for a floor vote on the administration's plan.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, rescheduled a Wednesday vote, claiming the Judiciary Committee needed time to review the bill. A congressional official speaking on condition of anonymity said House leaders were now uncertain they had enough votes for the Bush plan to prevail.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., announced Monday the Senate would turn to a border security measure instead. Frist also delayed floor action until next week on bills that would give legal status to the president's domestic surveillance program. The decision comes after Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said his panel needed time to consider legislation already approved by the Judiciary Committee.
Noting the upcoming elections, Frist said he wanted to do everything possible to strike a deal before moving the bill to the floor."I think that has the best chance of doing what we need to do, and that is pass that bill before we leave," he said.
The White House has said the Senate bill as written would put an end to the CIA interrogation program.
"While we continue to negotiate the specific language, it is important to note that the president and congressional Republicans agree on the bottom line: that the terrorist interrogation program can go forward" said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, in a statement Tuesday.
An agreement would prevent a GOP showdown on the floor and keeps Republicans from having to choose between backing Bush, as they have done in the past on anti-terror issues, and fellow Republicans known as leaders on national security issues. Facing tough elections this fall, Republicans are trying to sell themselves to voters as having a unified front in being tough on terror.