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2 Drafted for Vote on Terror Bill

After an early defeat, a House panel finds two missing members to help pass Bush's military tribunals bill. Wiretaps measure also moves on.

September 21, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's national security agenda lurched forward in Congress on Wednesday after House Republicans narrowly headed off a politically embarrassing defeat for the White House over legislation establishing military tribunals for terrorism suspects.

The tribunal legislation -- and a companion bill authorizing the administration's warrantless wiretapping program -- remained on track to be taken up by the House next week before Congress recesses. But there were signs that the two proposals might face more resistance than expected from the president's usual allies.

The House Judiciary Committee was forced to resort to parliamentary gimmickry to force a second vote Wednesday hours after the tribunal bill was unexpectedly defeated. The committee reversed itself by a single vote after Republicans rounded up missing colleagues.

Separately, the House Intelligence Committee approved a bill that would put into law the administration's surveillance program, which monitors the international phone calls and e-mails of persons in the U.S. who are suspected of having ties to terrorists. But its chief sponsor said final action was unlikely before the Nov. 7 elections. The House Judiciary Committee also approved a scaled-down version of the surveillance bill Wednesday.

The tribunal legislation was threatened when two Republicans unexpectedly sided with Democrats against the administration proposal, declaring that it would allow U.S. authorities to use abusive interrogation techniques forbidden by the Geneva Convention. The administration's plan to redefine the treaty has triggered concerns from military lawyers, a trio of prominent GOP senators and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

"If we don't honor our principles by living up to the Geneva Convention, and our basic tenets of fairness in trials, then we risk winning the battle but losing the war," said Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who along with Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona broke with fellow party members to oppose the Bush-backed bill.

Flake predicted that the administration would have to compromise. "In the end, I think they're going to have to come our way," he said, adding that GOP leaders "got a lot more push-back than they expected."

The president's proposal for interrogating and prosecuting terrorism suspects has already run into trouble in the Senate.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are pushing an alternative to the White House proposal that they said would be more faithful to the treaty, continued exchanging proposals Wednesday with the administration.

"I believe real progress is being made," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who supports the White House tribunal bill.

Despite the internal divisions, Republicans have been eager to pass military tribunal and surveillance legislation before recessing next week. The GOP hopes to highlight the anti-terrorism legislation in the midterm election campaign. But many Republican House members, who are all up for reelection, have broken with the president this year.

Voters are split over the administration's plans for tribunals. In a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll taken Saturday through Tuesday, a slight plurality opposed the Bush administration's plan "to allow interrogators to continue to use more extreme methods" with important detainees. Forty percent said the bill was bad for the country, whereas 37% said it was good.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a Judiciary Committee member, proposed an amendment with Flake to the tribunal bill to leave the torture prohibitions of the Geneva Convention unchanged. He said the White House bill would authorize interrogation techniques that were "on the ragged edge of torture." The committee rejected the amendment, 18-17.

After the committee rejected the White House-backed tribunal bill, House GOP leaders rounded up two Republican committee members who had missed the earlier vote -- Reps. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley and Henry J. Hyde of Illinois. The bill was then approved 20-19.

"No arms were twisted. Just two more sets of arms showed up," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Gallegly, who had been attending another committee meeting when the earlier vote was held, said the United States was in an unconventional war. "If we want to legislate right up to the edge of law, so be it," he said.

He said he expected the House to approve the bill next week, but added, "You take nothing for granted around here."

The tribunal debate was launched in June when the Supreme Court held that earlier U.S. rules for trying terrorism suspects violated U.S. and international law.

Democrats said the rush to prepare new rules could run afoul of the high court again. "The Bush administration has had five years to devise a system for trying terrorists that would meet Supreme Court standards, and they have failed miserably," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

The surveillance legislation approved by the intelligence committee had been rewritten in recent days by its sponsor, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), to address White House concerns. The original version would have permitted surveillance of Americans in the event of a terrorist attack; it was changed to permit monitoring when an attack is deemed "imminent."

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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