GOP Pressure Over Detainee Policy Leads to Defense Bill Delay
Faced with pressure from fellow Republicans to impose restrictions on the Pentagon’s treatment of detainees, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said Tuesday that he would delay until September consideration of the $491-billion defense bill authorizing funding for military operations next year.
Frist’s decision reflects the challenge confronting the Bush administration as it tries to fend off efforts by several important Republican senators to give Congress a role in how the military conducts interrogations of terrorism suspects.
At the same time, GOP senators from South Dakota and Maine have objected to proposals to close military facilities in their states as part of a nationwide base restructuring and are supporting amendments that would delay any closings.
With at least four Republicans -- John Thune of South Dakota, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- leading the effort to extend debate and consider the amendments, Frist lacked the 60 votes needed to force a vote on the bill. In the end, 50 senators voted to cut off debate; 48 voted to continue it.
Frist had previously shown no urgency to bring the defense authorization bill to a vote. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved it two months ago.
The question of whether to impose restrictions on the military’s interrogation procedures highlighted differences between the administration and some Republican senators.
Vice President Dick Cheney had been working behind the scenes to kill the amendments, setting up the confrontation with McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam; Graham, who served as an Air Force lawyer for 20 years; and John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who supported them.
Taken together, the interrogation and base-closing amendments suggest a growing independence among Senate Republicans as President Bush struggles with declining support for the war in Iraq as well as an investigation into the involvement of top White House aides in disclosing the identity of a CIA agent.
Supporters of the measure that would establish rules for interrogations see it as a final opportunity to restrict Pentagon operations -- at the Guantanamo Bay detainee center in Cuba, and at such facilities as the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq -- that have drawn sharp criticism and embarrassed the administration.
About a dozen reports have been issued in the 15 months since the abuses at the prison near Baghdad were first revealed, but none has called for dramatic, systemic change, prompting McCain and the others to step in.
One of McCain’s proposals would make interrogation techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual the standard for handling all detainees in Defense Department custody. Another would prohibit cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of U.S.-held prisoners, whether detained in the U.S. or elsewhere.
Graham’s amendment would give congressional approval to the administration’s legal policies on detainees, under which some are held indefinitely, by defining in law the term “enemy combatant” and codifying current Defense Department policies.
The two sets of amendments -- dealing with prisoners and fighting base-closing proposals -- touched off a threat of a presidential veto.
With Congress planning to begin a summer recess this weekend, there will be no opportunity to return to the defense measure until after Labor Day -- a delay that will give the administration additional weeks to pressure its Republican allies to back off their proposals.
John Isaacs, president of the arms control group Council for a Livable World, said Frist had miscalculated Republican support and had thought that Democrats would find it difficult to vote against a defense bill.
After failing to win support to bring the defense bill to a vote, Frist told reporters: “I’m very disappointed in the last vote.”