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A New Issue in the Election Mix

September 07, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When President Bush on Wednesday urged Congress to quickly provide him new legal authority to bring suspected terrorists to trial, he may have answered a political riddle: What issue would Republicans use to sharpen their contrasts with Democrats over national security in the approaching midterm election?

Bush's challenge to lawmakers could reshape the legislative landscape on the question of trying terrorists and inject a volatile dispute into the 2006 election, analysts say.

The Supreme Court in June forced Bush to seek a new legislative framework for trying suspected terrorists when it threw out as unconstitutional the military commission system he had established.

Until now, the dispute over establishing a system to replace the military commissions has not generated much attention outside of legal circles.

But several analysts said Bush emphatically changed that dynamic Wednesday by announcing that he had moved 14 high-profile detainees to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- and declaring that he intended to bring them to trial as quickly as Congress approved new rules.

By linking the trial of key figures suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks to agreement on a new legal structure, Bush's announcement is likely to increase the pressure on Congress.

"He is putting the ball in Congress' court to deal with this issue now," says Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative national security group.

"It is not going to be easy for Congress to say, 'Oh, we don't think trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is so important; we've got a highway bill we want to work on.' He's saying: 'I am establishing a priority here.' "

Bush also may be establishing a line of contrast with Democrats. Many Democrats believe that by heightening the focus on the detainee trial issue two months before the midterm congressional election, the president may be seeking to replicate a successful GOP strategy from the 2002 campaign.

In 2002, Bush and GOP congressional candidates condemned Democrats as weak on national security after a dispute over union protections delayed Senate approval of legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security. Bush ignited the issue when he charged in September 2002 that the Senate, then under narrow Democratic control, was "more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people."

Several Democrats said Wednesday they believed the White House was positioning Bush to level a similar charge in the coming weeks if Congress fails to authorize a system for trying suspected terrorists before it adjourns.

"This is a pretty transparent attempt at offering up bait to liberal Democrats to get in his way," said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the struggle over the Homeland Security Department in 2002.

Many civil libertarians say the system Bush initially proposed for trying terrorists, and the new legislation he released Wednesday, does not provide sufficient legal protection to the accused.

In what might be a signal of arguments to come, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Whip Roy Blount (R-Mo.) issued statements promising quick action on the president's request for new legislation.

The statement from Boehner's office criticized House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for comments earlier this year praising the Supreme Court decision overturning the military trial system Bush had established.

"While Republicans want to give the president the necessary tools to prosecute and achieve victory in the global war on terror, the reaction of Capitol Hill Democrats to the ... decision is just one more example of why Americans have no confidence in Democrats when it comes to addressing the issues of national and homeland security," said the statement.

Democrats, though, say they are optimistic that if the debate moves in that direction, the party can defend itself more effectively than it did in 2002. For one thing, they note, Bush's overall approval rating is much lower; for another, the war in Iraq has introduced doubts about his management of national security that were not present during the earlier argument.

Most important, they argue, three Republicans with military pedigrees are leading efforts to craft an alternative to the military commission proposal Bush released Wednesday: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John W. Warner of Virginia. Many Democrats are likely to embrace their eventual proposal, which is expected to provide more procedural protections for accused terrorists than Bush's plan does.

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