WASHINGTON — A Republican-controlled Senate committee dealt a blow to President Bush's national security agenda Thursday, approving a bill that would expand the legal rights of terrorism detainees.
The rebuke capped a day of bruising political combat in which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released a letter from Colin L. Powell, the president's former secretary of State, opposing Bush's proposal to allow more extreme methods of interrogation.
"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Powell said, adding that Bush's proposal "would put our own troops at risk."
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved McCain's bill, 15 to 9. The panel's 11 Democrats joined four Republicans -- McCain, Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine -- to recommend that the full Senate adopt the bill. All the "no" votes were cast by Republicans.
The focus of the fight is Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which establishes basic protections that must be offered to all combatants -- whether they are terrorists, warring tribes, insurgents or any other kind of irregular fighter.
The administration's bill would reinterpret that article to provide the same protections as those in the U.S. Constitution. The administration contends Common Article 3, which outlaws torture as well as "affronts to personal dignity," is too vague.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday that the administration was not trying to amend the Geneva Convention, but to "clarify" it. "No, we're not trying to change anything," Snow said. "We're trying to figure out what it means."
Powell's broad criticism of Bush's approach to terrorism surprised many in Washington.
And the rebuff to the White House by the Senate Armed Services Committee was a remarkable setback for Bush, who had seemed to be strengthening his political position in debate over national security policy.
Over the last week, the president had thrown Democrats on the defensive with a series of hard-hitting speeches on terrorism as his allies tried to cast doubt about whether Democrats were tough enough to meet the threat. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday showed that Bush's overall approval rating and marks on handling the war in Iraq had risen modestly.
But Thursday began with the president heading to Capitol Hill to rally his GOP troops and ended with the military tribunal fight that pitted Bush against senior members of his own party and against Powell.
Bush's allies released their own letters of support for the administration plan -- including one from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and another from a group of five top military lawyers, some of whom previously opposed measures that are part of the president's proposal.
"Here you have a bunch of Republicans infighting," said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "It undermines the [Republican National Committee] effort to cast this election as a choice" between political parties when it comes to the war on terrorism.
The debate also has reopened divisions between the president and McCain. The senator was Bush's main challenger in the 2000 presidential primary and has been a frequent thorn in his side during Bush's tenure.
In this fight, McCain has said that the tribunal bill he supports has ample legal protections for interrogators. He has argued that reinterpreting Geneva would send a message that the United States was no longer following the accepted definitions of Common Article 3, giving other countries and armed groups an excuse to strip international protections from captured U.S. soldiers.
But without clarifying Geneva, said John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, the CIA would have to close down a program under which it interrogates high-value detainees. Intelligence officers would be unsure of the rules and could be exposed to prosecution or lawsuits, Negroponte said.
With moderate Republicans and the overwhelming majority of Democrats supporting McCain's bill, administration supporters conceded Thursday that Bush's proposal was unlikely to prevail in the Senate.
"We're fighting an uphill battle," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he hoped some Democrats supported the administration's proposal on the Senate floor. "I think there are a lot of Democrats who don't believe we need to give excessive rights to terrorists," he said.
The House Armed Services Committee has passed a bill that closely mirrors Bush's proposal. The full House is expected to approve its tribunal legislation next week.
Bush, after a private meeting with House GOP rank-and-file Thursday, praised lawmakers for advancing that chamber's tribunal legislation "in a bipartisan fashion that will give us the tools and wherewithal to protect this country."