Security issues set Republican stage

McCain, Bush aim to control debate

September 16, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Behind the big election-year fight over new rules for terrorist tribunals is Round Two of a showdown between a pair of the Republican heavyweights: President Bush and Sen. John McCain.

Bush backed down last winter and accepted McCain's blanket prohibition of the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees. Bush said yesterday that the same language would be "a good way to go" in their latest fight.

But McCain is having none of that, and, once again, he seems to have the upper hand.

McCain appears to have enough votes to block Bush's plan, which, the senator says, would put "America's reputation" at risk. Bush implied yesterday that if McCain's side gets its way, it would weaken the U.S. fight against terrorism.

"It's a debate that really is going to define whether or not we can protect ourselves," Bush told a Rose Garden news conference.

For both men, the stakes could hardly be higher.

The struggle with McCain and a handful of like-minded Senate Republicans is threatening to rob Bush of a key element of his strategy for boosting the party's candidates in the fall elections: offering aggressive measures that showcase a tough-on-terrorism approach and painting Democrats as weak when they oppose them.

McCain isn't on the ballot this fall, but the fight with Bush could put in jeopardy the careful balance he has struck in attempting to fuel his own presidential ambitions.

The 70-year-old senator stokes his considerable crossover appeal each time he wages a high-profile struggle with the president. But in order to win the nomination, McCain needs the conservative support that a tight alliance with Bush could enhance.

Analysts say Bush could stand to have McCain's stature on national security issues rub off on him at a time when his party's control of Congress is in jeopardy.

"McCain has more credibility on this issue than the president of the United States," said Donald J. Guter, a former Navy judge advocate general who is dean of Duquesne University's law school.

"For a lot of voters, a reasonable agreement is what John McCain says it is," said Dan Schnur, a California-based Republican consultant and former McCain campaign spokesman.

As top White House aides work to break the deadlock over how to treat and try detainees, McCain, who was tortured and spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison, is at the center of their efforts.

Bush "tries to shape these proposals always with Senator McCain's input," said Mark McKinnon, an adviser to both men, believing that on national security issues, "it's better to have him" on the president's side.

The president says he needs wide latitude to interrogate and try terror detainees, including a measure that would essentially free the United States from international standards barring some forms of prisoner mistreatment. McCain is balking at the move, which he calls an effort to amend a treaty - known as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions - and a move that could endanger future American captives.

McCain has teamed with two other Republicans senators, John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, on a rival measure that would set up military commissions where the accused would have some basic trial protections, such as the right to see evidence against them, and bar coerced statements.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the measure Thursday, with bipartisan support, the same day that McCain's office released a letter from former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in which the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman sided with the rebellious Republicans against Bush.

Bush argued that the rival measure would force the CIA to end its secret prison operation for detaining and interrogating high-value terrorism suspects, though he stopped short of saying yesterday that he would veto it.

Bush was careful not to publicly criticize McCain. And White House spokesman Tony Snow disputed the notion that the two men were in a "battle royal" or a "shootout at the O.K. Corral" over the detainee issue.

McCain and Bush have developed a conflicted and at times tumultuous relationship since their sometimes-bitter 2000 primary battle, and suspicions remain, say people close to both men. That can be a hurdle during tense negotiations, when members of Bush's team have had to go out of their way to show sincerity, according to a former administration aide.

McCain has never been shy about airing his differences with the White House on policy issues, but he has also backed Bush on major priorities, including the war in Iraq and an immigration plan that would allow illegal immigrants a chance to earn citizenship.

Democrats are taking advantage of the situation and staying out of the Bush-McCain fight. Many of them say McCain's stance has made their opposition to Bush's proposal more palatable.

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