WASHINGTON -- Arizona Sen. John McCain, long a burr under the Republican saddle, is at it again.
Despite intensive efforts to repair the rift with his party's establishment by campaigning for President Bush and supporting the president's decision to invade Iraq, McCain is again pushing a cause that is causing fits in the West Wing.
This time, the former Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war has been urging Congress - and the president - to codify in law the nation's prohibition against torture after high-profile incidents of prisoner abuse.
The White House has said the administration does not condone torture.
McCain and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley continued their negotiations yesterday, but no compromise was reached. And time is running out as Congress tries to finish its legislative work for the year and leave town for Christmas.
But even after weeks of discussion, there were late signs that the administration might try to end-run McCain's intentions. The New York Times reported yesterday that Pentagon officials were rewriting the Army field manual to include questionable practices.
"We don't know what these techniques will be," said Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, who pointed out that the senator hasn't seen any proposed changes. But, he said, McCain expects the Army will comply with the McCain amendment's requirement prohibiting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners.
"Our image is suffering," McCain said in an interview, pointing to mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention center and news reports about secret CIA prisons in Europe. "The fact that we have this image throughout the world is hurting us very badly in Iraq and everyplace else."
Though seemingly simple on the surface, McCain's amendment has prompted Vice President Dick Cheney to personally implore senators to vote against it. It has brought the defense bill to a standstill in Congress, as well as the annual measure that funds the military. And it has served as a catalyst for an uncomfortable discussion about just what sort of techniques to extract information the U.S. government is employing.
For McCain, who endured torture for 5 1/2 years in the infamous North Vietnamese prison known as the Hanoi Hilton, the face-off only reminds the public of his sacrifice. And it continues to burnish his straight-talker reputation in advance of the 2008 presidential campaign.
But to his critics, the issue is a reminder that McCain views the world in stark, sometimes intractable terms. His fight to enact campaign finance reform, for example, lasted seven years until he succeeded in banning unlimited corporate and labor donations to the political parties.
McCain said his push to ban "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of people in U.S. custody is rooted in his concern about what might happen to American military people if detained.
In addition, he said, torture doesn't work. People who are being tortured will often say anything to make it stop.
"That's the fall-back position when you can't take any more physical pain," McCain said.
In his case, his North Vietnamese captors demanded to know the names of the members of his squadron. In response, McCain said, "I told them the starting line-up of the Green Bay Packers."
Eighty-nine senators agree with his position. The Senate approved the amendment 90-9, attaching it to the two major defense bills. Yesterday, the House passed a nonbinding motion endorsing the Senate-approved ban.
In the meantime, the White House has issued a veto threat, saying the language would restrict the president's ability to conduct the war effectively and to protect the American people from terrorism.
And administration officials also say it's not necessary to write the torture prohibition into law because the law already prohibits torture.
"The president's made it very clear that we do not torture and that we do not engage in torture," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
McCain, however, insists that he won't back down. And that could force the president to issue his first veto.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.