WASHINGTON – The House approved legislation Wednesday giving the Bush administration authority to interrogate and prosecute terrorism detainees, moving the president to the edge of a pre-election victory with a key piece of his anti-terror plan.
The 253-168 vote in the House came shortly after senators agreed to limit debate on their own nearly identical bill, all but assuring its passage on Thursday.
Republican leaders were hoping to work out differences and send Bush a final version before leaving town this weekend to campaign for the Nov. 7 congressional elections.
For nearly two weeks the White House and rebellious Republican senators have fought publicly over whether Bush's plan would give him too much authority. But they struck a compromise last Thursday, and Republicans are hoping approval will bolster their effort to cast themselves as strong on national security, a marquee issue this election year.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, all but dared Democrats to vote against the legislation.
"Will my Democrat friends work with Republicans to give the president the tools he needs to continue to stop terrorist attacks before they happen, or will they vote to force him to fight the terrorists with one arm tied behind his back?" he asked just before members cast their ballots.
Democrats opposed the bill by about a five-to-one margin, with many wanting to tone down the powers it would give to Bush and the limits it would impose on terror-war suspects' abilities to defend themselves during trials.
Said Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio: "This bill is everything we don't believe in."
The legislation would establish a military court system to prosecute terror suspects, a response to the Supreme Court ruling last June that Congress' blessing was necessary. While the bill would grant defendants more legal rights than they had under the administration's old system, it nevertheless would eliminate rights usually granted in civilian and military courts.
The measure also provides extensive definitions of war crimes such as torture, rape and biological experiments — but gives Bush broad authority to decide which other techniques U.S. interrogators can legally use. The provisions are intended to protect CIA interrogators from being prosecuted for war crimes.
With elections just weeks away, the debate over the legal handling of terrorists was often partisan with some Democrats contending the bill would approve torture.
"All Americans want to hold terrorists accountable, but if we try to redefine the nature of torture, whisk people into secret detention facilities and use secret evidence to convict them in special courts, our actions do in fact embolden our enemies," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
Others vehemently opposed language that would give the president wide latitude to interpret international standards of prisoner treatment and bar detainees from going to federal court to protest their treatment and detention under the right of habeas corpus. Supporters of the bill have said eliminating habeas corpus was intended to keep detainees from flooding federal courts with appeals.
The bill also gives the president the ability to interpret international standards for prisoner treatment when an act does not fall under the definition of a war crime, such as rape and torture.
"It gives too much leeway to the president," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. "And I think when you tamper with the Geneva Conventions ... you hurt our ability to protect the troops."
Republicans defended the measure as sound.
"Is it perfect? No," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "Do we have an obligation to pass it? Yes."
Republicans said time was critical so that terrorists could be brought to justice.
Lawmakers shrugged off multiple disruptions from citizens watching the floor debate from inside the Capitol.
As the House finished its bill, Senate leaders agreed to limit debate on their version of the measure. Four Democrats and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania were given opportunities to offer amendments in the Senate, but all were expected to be rejected.
"Until Congress passes this legislation, terrorists ... cannot be tried for war crimes in the United States and the United States risks fighting a blind war without adequate intelligence," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "That's simply unacceptable."
One amendment by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., defeated 54-43, would have replaced the Senate measure with the version maverick GOP senators pushed through the Armed Services Committee two weeks ago before striking a deal with Bush. The White House had promised to block that committee bill, which was written by GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and others, contending it would force an end to the CIA interrogation program.
Specter's amendment would strike the provision in the bill barring detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions.