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Frist Bashes McCain Bill in GOP Rift on Detainees

The impasse threatens the party's preelection strategy of showing unity against terrorism.

September 20, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As rebellious Republican lawmakers tried on Tuesday to reach a compromise with the White House over interrogations and trials of terrorist suspects, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sharply criticized a measure sponsored by his dissident GOP colleagues.

They include Arizona Sen. John McCain, a potential rival for the party's presidential nomination.

Frist contended that a bill advocated by McCain, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), 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 terrorism suspects.

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

The need for the legislation grew out of a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the administration's 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 Qaeda, now at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can be tried.

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

"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 Convention that they contend could lead other nations to abandon their treaty obligations and put captured Americans at risk.

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

Frist's harsh criticism of the McCain-sponsored bill was surprising, given that many of his GOP colleagues have sought to downplay 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 (R-Ala.), who supports the president's plan, said there was no rebellion in the GOP ranks, "just a disagreement."

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

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

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

Indeed, four House Republicans bolted from their leadership, which backs a tribunal bill that closely tracks the president's proposal, to support the McCain legislation.

"It is vital we not equivocate or waver 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.

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