WASHINGTON — Congress' Republican leadership Wednesday threw its weight behind two of President Bush's most controversial national-security programs — warrantless wiretapping and military tribunals.
But the party leaders are having trouble getting all their members on board, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And by backing the president's legislative demands, the leadership risks being labeled by Democrats as a rubber stamp for an unpopular president.
With prodding from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 along party lines to approve a bill negotiated with the White House to allow — but not require — Bush to submit the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program to a secret court for constitutional review.
That bill, which could come before the Senate next week, is considered by many to be a ratification of the administration's current surveillance program, which officials have said is restricted to the monitoring of overseas phone calls and e-mails of some Americans when one party is suspected of links to terrorism. The program has been attacked by Democrats and civil-liberties advocates as an excessive encroachment on Americans' privacy.
"The committee took the important step of acknowledging the president's constitutional authority to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an ardent Bush ally.
At the same time, the House Armed Services Committee voted 52-8 to ratify the White House's version of legislation creating military tribunals for trying terrorism suspects. The measure would give Bush the authority he seeks to withhold classified evidence from defendants, admit testimony that defendants might maintain was coerced and protect U.S. intelligence agents from legal action over their interrogation methods. House Republican leaders plan to bring the tribunal bill to a vote next week.
Committee action and the scheduling of floor time represented tangible progress for the administration and turned what had been essentially a heated policy debate into a legislative showdown. But if GOP leaders intended to use the bills to distinguish Republicans from Democrats on the conduct of the fight against terrorism, they had their share of problems.
Frist and other GOP leaders remain at odds with many rank-and-file members over the military tribunal bill. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to meet behind closed doors today in an effort to write its version of the measure, necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling in June that found the administration's earlier rules for trying terror suspects violated U.S. and international law.
Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are holding firm against the White House and Frist in their support of an alternative tribunal bill that would limit the use of classified evidence and coerced testimony in terrorism prosecutions, while maintaining broader protections for detainees against cruel and inhumane treatment. The three senators said they would press ahead with their bill, despite the political sensitivity of the controversy in an election year.
"Every senator and congressman should understand this is not about November 2006. This is not about your re-election," Graham said. "This is about those who take risks to defend America."
National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, in an unusual conference call with reporters Wednesday night to express opposition to the dissident Senate bill, said the CIA had told him that, if that bill passes, the agency would not be able to continue its "high-value terrorist detention program."
The existence of that program was confirmed last week by Bush.
McCain expressed bewilderment at an administration stand that he said would tamper with interpretations of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war. That stand is firmly opposed by top military lawyers.
"The overwhelming majority of retired military people are weighing in on this issue and saying, 'Don't amend Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions] because then you are allowing other nations' " to conclude that they, too, can change the conventions, McCain said.
In the House, the Judiciary Committee was forced to scrap a planned drafting of a warrantless surveillance bill, in part because nearly half a dozen Republican conservatives were in open rebellion against GOP leaders' efforts to weaken controls on the eavesdropping program.
"There are enough Republicans with concerns," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who was pushing bipartisan legislation that would all but scuttle the warrantless surveillance program. "Once you basically give the president this authority, it's very difficult to pull it back. That's very short-sighted just to point out the differences between Republicans and Democrats."
Background on the Supreme Court ruling was provided by the
Los Angeles Times.