WASHINGTON – Democrats are sitting out an explosive debate on how to treat the nation's most dangerous terrorism suspects, bypassing a chance to challenge President Bush on a proposal that has infuriated international law experts and human rights groups.
The reasons are fraught with politics: They don't have to join in, and they could regret it if they did.
With November elections for control of Congress just weeks away, Democrats are letting a handful of Republican senators battle the Bush administration over the legal fine points of the White House detainee plan in hopes the GOP will bloody itself on the top-tier issue of security.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that Democrats were "on the sidelines watching the catfights" among Republicans on terrorism legislation. He said they had little choice until the GOP settled on its position.
Democrats may attempt to amend the detainee legislation should it reach the floor of the House or Senate, and they say they will defend their record on national security. But it is unlikely party leaders will make much noise this election season to ensure terror suspects are afforded legal rights.
Influencing their strategy are memories of the 2002 defeat of Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who was ousted by Republican Saxby Chambliss following a TV ad campaign that attacked Cleland's patriotism. Cleland, a severely wounded Vietnam veteran, had voted against creating the Homeland Security Department.
"Max Cleland -- having lost three limbs in Vietnam -- thought the voters in Georgia wouldn't fall for" such charges, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Richard Durbin, said Wednesday. "They did and he lost his Senate seat. We're not going to make that same mistake."
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to focus voters on the violence in Iraq and the cost of the widely unpopular war.
Reid announced Wednesday that Democrats would conduct their own pre-election hearings on the Iraq war. To be held around the country as voters prepare to head to the polls, the sessions are intended to call attention to what Democrats say are gross missteps in the planning for the war.
Bush has pulled 14 terror suspects out of secret CIA prisons and sent them to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The group includes Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The administration's proposal would give the government wide latitude to detain and interrogate those terror suspects and others.
Republicans have hoped the president's plan would put Democrats in a tough spot. Democrats would have to choose between supporting the president or explaining why they voted not to prosecute hardened terrorists, a position that could make them easy targets for 30-second attack ads charging they are soft on terror.
But Democrats so far have been able to sidestep that minefield. Providing cover is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a few other Republicans who have questioned the moral grounds of the president's plan.
McCain and Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., oppose sections of the administration's bill related to classified evidence and interpretation of Geneva Convention standards of prisoner treatment. As of late Wednesday, the two sides remained locked in negotiations, making unclear whether the bill would reach the Senate floor by next week, which is expected to be the final week before lawmakers recess for the midterm elections.
Democrats say they are backing McCain because of his track record on defense issues. Held in captivity by the North Vietnamese for more than five years, McCain last year pushed through Congress a ban on mistreatment of detainees by arguing the prohibition would help protect U.S. troops if captured by the enemy.
Once Democrats do weigh in, their strategy is to show there is no daylight between the two parties on fighting terrorism, Democrats say.
One result of the political maneuvering is that at least one major issue has been omitted from congressional debate. The president's proposal would allow suspects to be held indefinitely without "habeas corpus," the right to protest one's detention in court.
Under the president's plan and agreed to by McCain and other GOP senators, only detainees selected by the Pentagon for prosecution are granted legal counsel and a day in court.
"If this legislation passes, people like Khaled Sheik Mohammed will get a full trial, while hundreds of detainees who are not charged with any crime will be denied even a hearing to test whether there is any basis to hold them," said Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a human rights lawyer.
"This is truly a bizarre result considering that ... the military does not even accuse a majority of the detainees of any involvement in violence," Colangelo-Bryan said.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wants to amend the habeas corpus provision but his office declined to provide details. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked leadership Wednesday to allow his panel to review it.