WASHINGTON – President Bush said Senate Republican leaders pledged to get to the president's desk as soon as possible legislation on interrogating and trying terror detainees.
Visiting Capitol Hill Thursday morning for a "pep talk" ahead of the November midterm election, the president stressed how important it is to get a bill completed so that the United States has another tool in prosecuting the War on Terror.
"The American people need to know that we’re working together to win this War on Terror. Our most important responsibility is to protect the American people from further attacks. And we cannot be able to tell the American people we're doing our full job unless we have the tools necessary to do so," Bush said. Vice President Dick Cheney joined the president on Capitol Hill.
"Our most solemn job is the security of this country. People shouldn’t forget there’s still an enemy out there that wants to do harm to the United States," Bush said.
The Senate is expected to vote Thursday afternoon on the bill, whose twin was approved by the House on Wednesday, 253-168. In the vote, 219 Republicans and 34 Democrats voted for the legislation, while 160 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent opposed the measures.
The legislation clarifies the boundaries for interrogating terrorists captured and held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and authorizes military commissions to conduct tribunals. The legislation was necessary after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the detainees deserve the protection of the Geneva Conventions on a right to trial. About 50 of the estimated 460 detainees at Guantanamo Bay are expected to face military trials.
During Thursday debate, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered an amendment to allow petitioners to file a "habeas corpus" write, which he said was a fundamental legal right and is necessary to uncover abuse. Opponents of that argument said opening up the U.S. courts to terrorists will grant them the opportunity to submit unlimited appeals that would weigh down the federal court system. The amendment failed 51-48.
House Republicans also rejected that amendment, adding that terror suspects will have legal rights such as access to a lawyer and the presumption of innocence.The bill does give detainees the right to appeal their status as enemy combatants before a court of military review. If the court upholds that status, the suspect can appeal that ruling to the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
The measure under debate also explicitly states a number of war crimes such as torture, rape and biological experiments that could be used to prosecute CIA agents who interrogate defendants. But it leaves unstated several techniques that the president can either approve or disapprove as a "grave breach" of law.
Some Senate Democrats say they oppose the legislation because it gives the president too much latitude on what a "grave breach" is. They also want detainees to be able to go to a U.S. civilian court, rather than a military commission, to challenge their detention.
"Now is not the time to abandon American values and to shiver and quake like we're a weak country and have to rely on secrecy and torture," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said during debate Wednesday. "We're too great a nation for that. Those are the ways of weakness, those are the ways of repression and oppression."
Other amendments offered was one from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who wanted more congressional oversight of the CIA program. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., sought an expiration date for the legislation so Congress could revisit the matter.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., offered an amendment to add to the list of forbidden interrogation techniques and warn other nations that the United States would not tolerate abusive treatment of its citizens living abroad. Kennedy said the GOP bill opens the door to retaliation from other nations.
"The bill that has reached the floor would diminish the security and safety of Americans everywhere," he said.
Opponents of the bill say it will not hold muster in the high court when it is challenged. The bill would grant defendants more legal rights than they had under the administration's old system, but opponents say it does not include rights usually granted in civilian and military courts.
Republicans say they can imagine no circumstances under which the Supreme Court would rule this process unconstitutional because foreign-born terrorists or battlefield combatants do not enjoy the same legal rights as U.S. citizens.
The top Senate Republican said he expects the Senate to follow the House and approve the measure.
"You know, it's going to be a big day. The detainee bill or the terrorist tribunal bill, the bill that establishes military commissions so we can try people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind, or the so-called mastermind behind 9/11, that bill will pass today," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
With passage of the bill, Republicans will have another brush with which to paint themselves as tougher in the War on Terror than Democrats, a key argument being offered ahead of the Nov. 7 midterm election.
After Wednesday's mostly party-line vote in the Republican-run House, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in a statement that Democrats who voted against the measure "voted today in favor of more rights for terrorists."
He added, "So the same terrorists who plan to harm innocent Americans and their freedom worldwide would be coddled, if we followed the Democrat plan."
In response, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats feared the House-passed measure could endanger U.S. soldiers by encouraging other countries to limit the rights of captured American troops, and be vulnerable to being overturned by the Supreme Court.
"Speaker Hastert's false and inflammatory rhetoric is yet another desperate attempt to mislead the American people and provoke fear," she said, adding that Democrats "have an unshakable commitment to catching, convicting and punishing terrorists who attack Americans."
Democrats are likely to use the terrorists' rights issue to say in political attack ads that Republicans are less interested in justice than punishment.
FOX News' Major Garrett and Molly Henneberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.