Still split, GOP optimistic of deal on terror suspects

Amid continued division over the treatment of American-held terror suspects, Republicans were optimistic yesterday about forging a deal between the White House and a band of GOP dissidents to redefine standards for their interrogation and trial.

“I’m hopeful we’ll reach an agreement,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the dissidents, as he apologized to reporters for not revealing the details of the backroom negotiations.

When does he hope a deal will be struck?

“I’m hopeful in the next five minutes,” he said.

“There is common ground,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said just before he publicly criticized a bill backed by McCain and allies John Warner (R-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Even Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman joined the chorus of optimism before ducking into a meeting with Republican senators and Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I’m optimistic they’ll get something done,” Mehlman said.

But their sunny dispositions had not bridged their substantive divide by The Hill’s press time.

Supporters of the White House version say it is a vital national security tool that the administration needs if it is to protect American citizens.

But few find it so vital that they would keep the Senate in session into October (when lawmakers would rather he campaigning to retain their seats) if a deal cannot be struck between the White House and the GOP dissidents before the end of next week.

Last week, Warner pushed his own version of the bill through the Armed Services Committee, heightening pressure on Republican leaders to act on either that measure or an alternative. Since then, the two sides hashed it out on Sunday talk shows, the White House has sent up its new proposal and the House has scuttled plans to pass the White House version.

Warner’s action stoked strife in the Republican Party and on his Armed Services panel.

“I don’t like the product that came out of the committee,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters yesterday that he wants legislation that would preserve American intelligence programs and keep classified information out of the hands of suspected terrorists who are brought to trial.

“The Warner-McCain-Graham bill falls short,” he said. “I remain open to alternatives.”

Frist said he wants to pass a bill before the planned Sept. 29 recess, but he dodged repeated questions about whether he would keep the Senate working past that date if necessary.

“That we get out on the 29th is set in concrete,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a member of Majority Whip Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) kitchen cabinet.

“I think more important than doing it in the next 10 days or so is that we do it correctly,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a former majority leader who said he is reserving his fire for now.

Lott said he disagrees with McCain, Graham and Warner on whether information obtained through coercion should be admissible in the military tribunals. He called their position “asinine.”

“That’s lawyers trying to apply to these turkeys American jurisprudence. I think that’s wrong,” Lott said. He said he experienced worse treatment “when I was going through college initiation programs.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) picked up on the same theme.

“Our soldiers in boot camp put up with a lot more,” he said.

“It is critical to our country that we get something done,” DeMint said, but he conceded that the Senate is unlikely to stay in session past next week to do it.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he’d like to have a crack at the legislation through a sequential referral, which he said would add only a couple of days to the process.

The Tuesday media scrum outside the Republican Policy luncheon was so intense that Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), accustomed to taking a figurative beating from the media, emerged with a bloodied shirtsleeve. Burns said a reporter pinned him against the wall and he fought his way through the crowd. The blood on his sleeve was his own.

“I said ‘I’m coming through. There’s an easy way and a hard way,’” Burns said in the relative safety of a tunnel that connects the Senate with its office buildings.

As for the timing of the military tribunal legislation, Burns, too, was optimistic about finishing it by next week.

“I hope we can get it done before then,” he said.

Inhofe put himself in the small caucus of those willing to keep working past next week, if necessary.

“It’s that important,” he said. “We have lives to save.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a fellow member of the Armed Services Committee, said he would like to see action soon, but that if a deal is not brokered before Sept. 29, “maybe a few more days wouldn’t help.”