WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved administration-backed rules for interrogating and trying terrorism suspects, a key component of the national security agenda that Republicans aim to showcase in their fight to hold onto Congress.
The Senate is expected to follow suit today, making passage of the military tribunal bill one of Congress' final acts before lawmakers recess this weekend to hit the campaign trail. Barring complications, the legislation will reach President Bush's desk for a high-profile signing ceremony in the run-up to the November elections.
The measure, approved by the House 253 to 168, would preserve tough interrogation tactics that the White House has credited with helping thwart terrorist plots. It also would pave the way for trials of at least two dozen terrorism suspects, including self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who are being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We must remember that we are fighting a different kind of enemy -- and a different kind of war," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said as the chamber opened debate on the measure Wednesday. "To win this war, we must provide our military, intelligence and law enforcement communities the tools they need to keep us safe."
But Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, objected that the measure would be "used by our terrorist enemies as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to proclamations of human rights."
The bill is one of several that GOP lawmakers have rushed to pass to spotlight an issue they consider their party's strength: national security. Another measure, authorizing Bush's once secret warrantless surveillance program, is unlikely to clear Congress until after the election.
Final action on the tribunal bill will bring to a close the wrangling that began in June, when the Supreme Court struck down the administration's earlier rules for trying terrorism suspects before military commissions. The legislation didn't fall into place until the White House and a group of Senate Republicans worked out a compromise last week.
As passed by the House, the measure would allow the administration to use interrogation methods tougher than those employed by the military; it does not specify precisely what would be permitted or explicitly banned.
Water boarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe he is going to drown, would be banned, according to those who helped broker the deal. Some human rights advocates said the language of the bill would ban sleep deprivation and exposing detainees to extreme temperatures.
The approval came despite warnings from human rights groups that provisions such as prohibiting detainees from challenging their imprisonment in court and permitting the use of coerced evidence in trials under certain circumstances put the bill on questionable legal footing.
A bipartisan effort led by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to strip out the provision preventing detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions -- demands for legal justification for their imprisonment -- is expected to come before the Senate today.
If that amendment passes, the overall bill would have to go to a House-Senate conference committee, which would delay its passage.
Previewing GOP plans to use the tribunal measure in the campaign, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) challenged Democrats on Wednesday to vote against it. "Will my Democrat friends work with Republicans to give the president the tools he needs to continue to stop terrorist attacks before they happen -- or will they again vote to force him to fight the terrorists with one arm tied behind his back?" he asked.
Thirty-four Democrats joined 219 Republicans in voting for the bill, while 160 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent voted against it.
California House members voted along party lines, with all Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it. Reps. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) did not vote.
"Let me be very clear. I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for the planners and perpetrators of 9/11," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo). But, she said, the bill would "do nothing but put us in further legal limbo."
"This bill is practically begging to be overturned by the court," added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Democrats accused Republicans of rushing to pass a legally suspect bill to score political points. Within an hour of the vote, the House GOP leadership put out a statement accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) issued a statement after the vote accusing Democrats of voting in favor of "more rights for terrorists."
"So the same terrorists who plan to harm innocent Americans and their freedom worldwide would be coddled, if we followed the Democrat plan," he said.