House clears way for passage of military-tribunal legislation

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate struck a deal yesterday that appeared to clear the way for the enactment of a controversial military-tribunal bill. The agreement positions the GOP to claim a significant legislative achievement, and perhaps an important political victory, before lawmakers leave town to campaign for reelection.

“If the Democrats oppose it, it will be to their political detriment,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said.

The House yesterday passed the bill, 252-168, with 34 Democrats voting for it and seven Republicans voting against it. The Senate was considering identical but separate legislation, meaning that one chamber would still have to pass the other chamber’s version of the bill for it to be sent to the president.

Senate Democrats agreed to expedite consideration of the measure, which would establish a trial system for unlawful enemy combatants and provide more-detailed definitions of war crimes in order to protect nonmilitary intelligence officials from being prosecuted for using certain techniques to interrogate terror suspects.

“We are trying to pass a good bill and we worked on a good bill,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In return, Republicans agreed to allow five amendments to be offered on the floor, four by Democrats and one by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

The bill itself is the product of a compromise between the White House and a band of recalcitrant Senate Republicans led by John Warner (Va.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who initially differed from the president on the use of classified evidence against terrorism suspects, the treatment of detainees under the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act, and other issues.

The administration ended its program for trying unlawful enemy combatants in June when the Supreme Court deemed it to be unconstitutional.

House Democrats warned that the new legislation, written by Republicans, could also be challenged in the courts.

“Our nation cannot afford to have any terrorist convictions overturned on judicial appeal,” said Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “We should be taking the time to get this done right, not rushing through the process in an election-year frenzy.”

They also said the measure could endanger American troops by giving the administration too much latitude to interrogate terror suspects.

“Agreeing to such an ambiguous compromise would allow the president to define torture when and how he sees fit and would undoubtedly put our armed forces at risk of abuse while doing little to obtain the intelligence we need from terrorists currently detained,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.).

Republicans argued that the legislation is an important piece of the administration’s arsenal for combating terrorism.

“By formally establishing terrorist tribunals, the bill provides another critical tool in fighting the war on terror. And it provides a measure of justice to the victims of 9/11,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said.

“The American people can’t afford to wait. Even though we are in the midst of an election year, this issue – the safety and security of the American people – should transcend partisan politics. The time to act is now,” he said.

In the Senate, Democrats were expected to seek votes on their amendments, including one offered by Carl Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, that would substitute a version of the bill approved by that panel, and one offered by Sen. Robert Byrd (D- W.Va.), that would end the president’s authority to conduct the tribunals after five years. The Senate turned back the Levin amendment late yesterday afternoon.

Frist confidently predicted that none of the amendments would pass.

“We’ll be able to defeat those,” he said.    

“We wanted to keep it as clean as possible,” Frist spokeswoman Carolyn Weyforth said.