Frist assails GOP bill on tribunals

Dissident proposal threatens war on terror, he says

September 20, 2006|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- As rebellious Republican lawmakers tried yesterday to reach a compromise with the White House over interrogations and trials of terrorist suspects, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sharply criticized a measure sponsored by his dissident GOP colleagues, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, a potential rival for the party's presidential nomination.

Frist, a Tennessee Republican, contended that an alternative bill advocated by McCain, along with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John W. Warner of Virginia, would subject interrogators to "international courts and vague standards" and would jeopardize a program that has been vital in the war on terrorism.

"The president's bill clarifies United States law so that our government can continue a very important program that we know has saved American lives," Frist said, referring to a White House effort to give interrogators clear rules on the questioning of terror suspects.

A harried-looking McCain brushed aside Frist's comments, noting curtly, "Our negotiations are with the White House."

High court ruling

The need for the legislation grew out of a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the administration's earlier rules for prosecuting accused terrorists before military tribunals. The White House has pressed Congress to swiftly enact a bill so that alleged Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and 13 other suspected top leaders of al-Qaida now at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can be brought to justice.

In an effort to bridge their differences, the dissident GOP senators and administration officials exchanged proposals and counter-proposals throughout the day yesterday.

"Progress is being made," said Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling the talks "constructive" but declining to discuss specifics.

McCain added: "We are continuing the negotiations. And that's all I can say. It changes from hour to hour."

McCain, Graham and Warner remained adamantly opposed to the administration's effort to redefine a provision of the Geneva Conventions that they contend could lead other nations to abandon their treaty obligations and put captured Americans at risk.

`Not backing down'

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and a White House ally, said the administration was making an effort, through alternative proposals it has sent to Capitol Hill, to provide "reassurance that we're not backing down from our treaty obligations."

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said he, too, was hopeful an agreement could be reached. "We think a compromise can be found which would allow the president to continue to gather information that would protect this country from another attack, but to do so in a way that would make it clear to everyone that of course we still believe very much in the Geneva Conventions," he said.

Frist's harsh criticism of the McCain-sponsored bill was surprising, given that many of his GOP colleagues have sought to play down their differences over the tribunal legislation and are anxious to head off a politically embarrassing intra-party brawl on the Senate floor.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who supports the president's plan, said that there was no rebellion in the GOP ranks, "just a disagreement."

"Senator McCain has been a prisoner of war, and he's concerned about these issues," he said.

Frist, who is not seeking re-election, is in his final legislative days as the Senate's leader. He is seeking to end the pre-election session on a high note with passage of a number of anti-terrorism bills, important to the GOP's efforts to highlight their record on national security in the November election.

Widening rift

But the widening rift within Republican ranks threatens his goal of passing the tribunal bill before lawmakers recess, probably the end of next week.

Indeed, even as Senate Republicans remained divided on the bill, four House Republicans bolted from their leadership, which backs a tribunal bill that closely tracks the president's, to lend their support to the McCain legislation.

"It is vital we not equivocate or waiver on our commitment to treating those in U.S. custody in the same manner we would expect our own citizens be treated," said a letter sent to House GOP leaders by Republican Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, Michael N. Castle of Delaware, Jim Leach of Iowa and James T. Walsh of New York.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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