WASHINGTON — After threatening the first veto of the Bush presidency over efforts to outlaw the torture of military prisoners, the White House has backed away from a showdown and is now seeking a compromise with Congress.
A White House spokesman said Saturday that national security advisor Stephen Hadley had met three times over the last month -- most recently Thursday night -- with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chief sponsor of an amendment setting new restrictions on U.S. treatment of war prisoners.
A McCain aide confirmed that the subject of those talks was the anti-torture amendment, which passed the Senate by a landslide despite heavy opposition from the White House and personal lobbying by Vice President Dick Cheney.
"They [administration officials] have assured me this will get worked out," said a senior Senate Republican aide who, like others, did not want to be identified because the matter was still being negotiated in private. "It passed the Senate 90-9, and everyone agrees that if it came to a vote in the House, it would pass overwhelmingly. The trend lines are all in the Senate direction."
If the White House capitulates or makes major concessions to McCain, it would be a significant retreat for an administration that argued vehemently that the measure would limit the president's flexibility in fighting terrorism.
The strong sentiment in Congress points to continuing concern about the erosion of America's moral authority following abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the denial of U.S. court trials to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other allegations of prisoner mistreatment.
"The administration lost the high ground on a critical issue that spoke to America's moral standards in the war on terror," said Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain aide who now is a fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "It is inevitable that the administration is going to capitulate on this issue. It is only a matter of time."
Suspicion about U.S. activities prompted European leaders to write to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week to demand information about reports that the CIA holds prisoners in undisclosed sites around the world, including in Europe. Rice plans to respond Monday as she leaves for Europe, where she is expected to encounter questions on U.S. treatment of captives. Rice will travel to Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Belgium.
The McCain amendment would set stricter standards against the inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists and other detainees. It would make the Army Field Manual the authority on interrogations and would bar all U.S. government agencies from "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of prisoners.
The Senate this fall attached the amendment to two major defense bills. The provision had not been included in the House versions of the bills, so its fate is officially in the hands of House and Senate negotiators on the measures. But McCain has threatened to add the ban to every major piece of legislation in the Senate until it is adopted.
The White House and its allies argued that existing laws and regulations were adequate to prevent the torture of prisoners. They feared that adoption of the amendment would signal to prisoners that they had little to fear during interrogations. Pentagon officials warned that rigid rules could restrict U.S. latitude in the fight against terrorism.
The administration's opposition was especially forceful. Although Bush has never exercised his veto power as president, he initially threatened to reject the defense bills if they contained the torture ban. Cheney made a personal plea to Senate Republicans in a closed-door meeting last month. He lobbied for Congress to at least exempt the CIA.
McCain called that exemption "totally unacceptable," and the White House has apparently dropped the effort, a source familiar with the negotiations said.
The torture ban was discussed by House and Senate GOP leaders at a two-day retreat last week on the legislative agenda. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said after the meeting that a compromise would soon be struck, freeing Congress to reach final agreement on the annual defense funding bills to which the amendment has been attached.
The recent meetings between McCain and Hadley were first reported Saturday by the Wall Street Journal. Frederick Jones, spokesman for the National Security Council, confirmed that Thursday night's discussion was the third one-on-one meeting between the two men. Jones would not confirm the topic of the meetings, but he did point to recent statements about the amendment by Hadley that struck a conciliatory note.
"We're working with Sen. McCain to reach accommodation in Congress," Jones said.
The torture ban is just one of several issues in Congress on which Republicans are showing more independence from the White House than they typically did during Bush's first term. But Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), denied that any concession by Bush on the torture ban was a sign of second-term weakness.
"It has nothing to do with broader events," Ueland said. "There is a serious and sharp difference of opinion about the best way to proceed in this area. The administration holds one view and Congress holds a different one."