Senate GOP Pushes Back on Detainee Rules

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President Bush is encountering resistance from some high-profile Senate Republicans on his detainee interrogation policies. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams talks with Alex Chadwick about this and other political stories of the week.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up: a boxer's battle to get back into the ring. First, back to the national political debate, now between Republicans over how to treat war on terror detainees. President Bush's efforts to win legislation to ease rules on treatment is blocked by influential GOP senators. For now at least.

Joining us is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, a regular Friday guest on DAY TO DAY. Juan welcome back.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Always good to be with you Alex.

CHADWICK: And this debate over the treatment of detainees, it had a lot of high points this week, including a letter from Colin Power - former secretary of state, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Quite a high profile challenge to President Bush isn't it?

WILLIAMS: Oh, it is. And I think the president knew it. If you were watching the president's news conference today, you saw that when he was asked about it he didn't even mention Powell's name. He just went right at the argument and I think it was one of the moments where he demonstrated real anger - and the president looked unsettled by the whole thing - but real anger at people who are challenging him on this point and he made it quite clear he is not backing down.

And what Powell did was say that this was, you know, inflaming doubts - moral doubt - about the basis for the war against terrorism and hurting us with our allies. And the suggestion, of course, coming from a man who is not only the president's former Secretary of State but a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a well-known military figure was that somehow the president had lost touch with his military commanders on this issue. So it was a real challenge to the president's authority and to his standing.

CHADWICK: Now as that comes this week, I think people in Washington must be looking at at least some new polls that show the president gaining a little of support, anyway, over his talk over the last couple of weeks on national security.

So for Republicans then, there are other polls out that say no the Republicans are going to be in trouble and people don't like what the president is doing, especially in Iraq. So I think for Republican office holders this is going to be a very difficult couple of weeks.

WILLIAMS: Well, this is a difficult election for Republicans. What you see going on nationally is people still holding to the strategy of distancing themselves from President Bush and not mentioning the war in Iraq. So what you get is the president and the Republican Party in the awkward position of supporting moderates.

People like Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, who not only didn't support giving the president authority to go to war and didn't support the president on his nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, but literally didn't vote for the president. He's a Republican who did not vote for the president in the last election. Didn't vote for Kerry but didn't vote for Bush. And you see this being replicated all over.

I think, Alex, what the polls indicate at this point is the president got a bump and the bump came around, of course, the 9/11 five year mark - out from that - and the fact that he gave so many speeches. But it bumped it up. It still - his approval rating in that Wall Street Journal poll you're referencing was still about in the low 40s. So, it's not very good.

It's still the case that almost 60 percent of the American people think the war in Iraq is a mistake. They think the country - I think it's 54 percent - think the country's headed in the wrong direction. Those are bad numbers for Republicans. And overwhelmingly when people are asked who do you prefer to have control of the Congress at his point, they're saying Democrats. So that just makes for a difficult political dynamic for Republican candidates who are seeking re-election.

CHADWICK: Well, but look at this one. This week the Democrats issued what they called the real national security bill. This is their kind of where we stand on what to do. Five hundred and twenty-eight pages of this bill, this massive tome that they - five pages devoted to the war in Iraq, five out of 528 pages.

WILLIAMS: Well, so what we learn here, Alex, is the president may have trouble with Iraq and the American people may not feel good about his stewardship of this war, but with the Democrats all they can do is point at the president and say let's change course. They do not have a coherent counter-strategy. They do not have a proposal that they are willing to sign on, to put on the table and say here is how we would approach the war in Iraq.

There are different kinds of strategies out there kind of floating around. Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware, he's said, you know, this country's basically in civil war maybe we should consider allowing it to become, you know, a sectarian state with the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis. There are others who talk about having U.S. troops withdraw and sit around the country to prevent any terrorist intervention and prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist center.

But there's no agreement. And I don't think we're going to get an agreement until you see someone nominated for president and people fall in line behind that nominee for 2008.

CHADWICK: Well, you mentioned Senator Biden. I noted that he's going to have a big speech next week before the Council on Foreign Relations, specifically on Iraq. So maybe they're going to develop something someday.

WILLIAMS: Well, they need to. The thing is, at this point, given the lack of any agreement there's just worry that they don't want to distract the American people from the fact they're angry at the president.

CHADWICK: And Juan we have to go on DAY TO DAY.

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