GOP Grapples with Veto, Torture, Retirements

The Republican Party had a rough go last week. President Bush vetoed a popular health insurance program for children, secret administration memos allowing harsh interrogation techniques were revealed, and five GOP senators have chosen to step down at the end of their terms next November.

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm James Hattori, sitting in for Liane Hansen.

It was a rough political week for the Republican Party. Aside from President Bush's veto of the popular children health insurance bill, the GOP took some hits for a report on two secret memos that authorized harsh interrogation techniques. Critics contend the memo show the White House tolerates torture. The president denies it.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This government does not torture people. You know, we stick to U.S. law and our international obligations.

HATTORI: The Republican's prospects for next year's elections also suffered. Several GOP senators are stepping down sooner than the party would have liked. And one is sticking around too long.

Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor. Ron, let's begin with that story about a secret strategy apparently of the Bush administration to implement very permissive notions of what constitutes torture. Now, how serious an issue is this for the Bush administration now that these documents have become public?

RON ELVING: We have seen the administration changed its position on what it considered torture a couple of times. And a key change was from that memo in the summer of 2002, which seem to make many, many things permissible, and which set the bar way high for a definition of torture.

To then in December of 2004, the administration is saying we abhor torture. It's abhorrent to us. We're not going to use such techniques.

And then, apparently, according to this New York Times story, which the White House has not denied the fact of. Just a couple of months after that December 2004 memo, with the coming of Alberto Gonzales over from being White House counsel to being the attorney general, the Justice Department changed its tune again and in secret, in memos that were not shown, redefined what would be permissible to include things like head slapping, extremes of temperature and simulated drowning called water boarding used in a multiple fashion in interrogation.

Is that torture? The White House says it's not. But they have never told us what they would consider to be torture.

HATTORI: What role is this likely to play when Congress considers the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general?

ELVING: Some Democrats, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, would like to hold up the Mukasey nomination until they have the White House's cooperation on this and a number of other matters that are very much in dispute right now. But Leahy does not have the full backing of the other Democrats in the Senate. There are a lot of people who want the confrontation with the White House. There are a number of people who do not want the confrontation with the White House. And they don't want to hold up the Mukasey nomination because, among other things, the Justice Department needs someone to run it. And we've been many months now without an effective Justice Department because of these very controversies. So they would just assume not worsen the damage that's already been done over some of these issues in the name of getting cooperation on the document.

On the other hand, many will make the case that without that kind of leverage, without withholding something like hearings for the Mukasey nomination, they'll never get that kind of cooperation from the White House.

HATTORI: Elections are coming up next year. The Republicans are already saddled with an unpopular president. Now, several key GOP senators are giving up their seats. How is this likely to play up come November, Ron?

ELVING: Well, you've got four Republican senators in Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Virginia. All of whom would have been favorites for reelection, who have decided to retire, and now, those seats are all wide open. The Democrats could win two or three or conceivably even four of those seats.

On the other side, there are no Democratic senators who have decided to retire as yet. And we're not expecting there to be any. 2006 was a banner year for Democrats in the senate. It's looking right now as though is 2008 could be nearly as good again.

HATTORI: And one of those senators in question as well is Larry Craig in Idaho.

ELVING: That's right. Larry Craig is a fifth Republican senator who is planning to leave at some point or another. The question with Larry Craig is whether or not he's going to leave in short order or whether he's going to leave at the end of his term. But there is an ethics investigation and ethics complaint lodged against him because of the bathroom incident in the Minnesota Airport. And the judge back in Minnesota has refused to vacate Larry Craig's original plea of guilty in that case.

So he's got a lot against him at this point but he has just announced this week that he wants to hang in there. He wants to ask the people of Idaho to support him as he completes his term. We'll see whether or not the other Republican senators here in Washington will let him do that.

HATTORI: Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor. Ron, thanks for joining us.

ELVING: My pleasure, James.

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