Why There Must Be a Deal on Terror Prisoner Rules

Sometime this week, President Bush will climb down from the high dudgeon of his Rose Garden news conference and make a deal with Senate Republicans who sidetracked his plans for dealing with terror prisoners.

It will not make the president happy. It will not make Vice President Dick Cheney happy. There will be exasperation for some at the CIA and elsewhere in the intelligence establishment. There will also be those in the Senate who dislike the terms of the deal or who would prefer the impasse continue.

But a deal must be struck. The political needs of all the principals in the dispute demand a resolution that allows all concerned to declare victory and move on.

To be more precise, there must be a deal that allows the White House to declare victory, and the Republican Party to move on. As with so much else that goes on in Washington these days, it's ultimately about the midterm elections on November 7.

As those elections near, the president's standing is of paramount importance to all the candidates in his party. So even if some Republicans feel they must resist him on a major issue, the same intraparty holdouts will praise him to the skies once they have wrung the concessions they need.

The president’s men had assumed they could blow past any congressional resistance to their plans. Now they must recognize that the Republican pushback is too large to be ignored and too strong to be muscled.

But the rebels, too, must realize that a compromise is the best they can expect to get. They do not gain by defeating their president: The head of state can be bloodied, but not bowed. So if the three can be mollified on their key points, they know they have to go along and do it with a smile.

In this instance, the key rebels have played a difficult game well so far. Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner of Virginia, his key ally John McCain of Arizona, and junior triumvir Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have taken great political risks on behalf of that special constituency they all represent — the professional military.

The role of the career military is critical in all of this, and this is where the White House made its miscalculation. Their expectation was that the president would have to fight only a ragtag rearguard of Democrats, not a phalanx of uniforms.

To review, this battle began two weeks ago, as the country prepared to mark the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The administration chose this propitious moment to propose new authorities to empower the president.

The package included a congressional blessing for the existing program of no-warrant eavesdropping run by the National Security Agency. They also included a new set of rules governing the handling of terror suspects by the CIA and a new plan for military commissions to try suspects.

All of these proposals have their critics on both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate. But by presenting them all at the 9/11 moment of national mourning, the White House knew it was putting those critics on the defensive. By bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, the president created the perfect symbol.

Political observers sized up the substance and timing and pronounced it all brilliant. Once again, Bush strategist Karl Rove was acclaimed as a genius.

But the first sign of trouble came almost immediately, when judge advocate generals from the several branches of the service came down on major aspects of the president's military tribunal and interrogation plans. These top lawyers, career servants of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, sounded a warning that would resound in the days ahead.

Then there was the critical contribution made by retired generals such as Jack Vessey and John Shalikashvili, who helped trigger the coup de grace from Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and former secretary of state). The game of capture the flag, usually so easy for the White House to win, was suddenly a draw.

But none of this will prompt much visible rejoicing in the camps of the Senate trio, who are still taking real risks here. Warner and Graham will be finishing their terms in 2008 and face some career uncertainty. McCain, of course, is hoping to become the Republican nominee to succeed Mr. Bush. He needs to unite the party behind him, and specifically to reassure conservatives who find him too independent.

So, we can expect to soon hear Chairman Warner step to a mike somewhere and salute the president in lavish terms. McCain will also pay tribute and call George W. Bush his great friend. Look for Graham to return eagerly to the fold as well.

It's possible that even the Democrats in the Senate will fall back at this point and vote for whatever is negotiated. If the deal is good enough, they can say they supported the resistance of Warner, McCain and Graham and supported the compromise as well.

That would make sense, not from the standpoint of principle but from that of politics. It would deny the White House the showdown between the parties it had imagined, with the president cast as protector of American lives and the Democrats as defenders of terrorists' rights.

That strategy, however brilliant, lost its edge in the bitter back-and-forth between Mr. Bush and the Senate trio. If Democrats accept the concessions the trio won and let the rest of it go, there will be little fodder for the Republican cannons between now and November.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.



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