Detainee Interrogation Bill Moves to Senate

President Bush visits the U.S. Capitol to push for new rules to try and interrogate suspected terrorists. On Wednesday, the House voted largely along party lines to pass that legislation. The Senate is expected to do the same Thursday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning President Bush is going up Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol. He's meeting there with Senate Republicans as part of a push to win new rules for trying and interrogating suspected terrorists. Yesterday, the House voted largely along political lines to pass that legislation. Today, the Senate is expected to do the same. We have this report from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: The House voted 253 to 168 for a bill drafted by the White House and Republican leaders that sets guidelines for military trials of detainees in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As they were about to vote, Majority Leader John Boehner warned House Democrats they'd be tying the president's hands if they oppose the bill.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Majority Leader): I do not and will never question the integrity or the patriotisms of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. This is about giving our president the tools he needs to wage war against terrorists who are trying to kill us.

WELNA: Still, 160 Democrats voted against the bill, along with seven Republicans and one independent. Republicans hope to campaign against Democrats on this vote in the mid-term elections. And Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert quickly put out a statement declaring Democrats had voted in favor of, as he put it, more rights for terrorists whom he said Democrats wanted to "coddle."

As the same bill arrived on the Senate floor yesterday, Majority Leader Bill Frist invoked the name of one of 14 suspected al-Qaida operatives recently transferred to Guantanamo.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Senate Majority Leader): Until Congress passes this legislation, terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad cannot be tried for war crimes and the United States risks fighting a blind war without adequate intelligence to keep us safe. That's simply unacceptable and that's why this bill must be passed.

WELNA: Others, among them some leading Republicans, have demanded legislation that provides the same protections for detainees that Americans would want for their own forces being tried abroad. Mississippi Republican Trent Lott mocked such concerns.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): Are we going to ask them, please, pretty please? When they let on like some of the techniques that have been used are such horrible things - being threatened by a dog? Come on. Have they never delivered laundry to somebody's house and had a dog come after them?

WELNA: But the Supreme Court last June ruled the Bush administration's approach to detainee trials was illegal, and it told Congress to come up with a new plan. Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, who'd earlier resisted the White House's legislation, said the compromise he now endorses will likely face new court challenges.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): It's my fervent hope and conviction that whatever the Congress does, the legislation we produce must be able to withstand further security review and scrutiny of federal court system, and in particular the Supreme Court.

WELNA: Senate Democrats pointed to numerous flaws they saw in the legislation. Everything from allowing Americans to be defined as enemy combatants to permitting evidence that's obtained in the U.S. without search warrants. Michigan Democrat Carl Levin tried unsuccessfully to ban evidence obtained through coercion prior to December 30, 2005.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Our failure to conclusively exclude statements obtained through cruel and inhuman methods are all too likely to be seen through much of the world as a confirmation of negative views of Americans and what we stand for, and that have been shaped - those views of so many in the world - by their views of what happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

WELNA: And it wasn't just Democrats pushing back. Arlen Specter, the Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, sparred on the Senate floor with fellow GOP committee member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Specter said it was wrong for the bill to remove habeas corpus protections.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): How do you deal with the flat terms of the Constitution which quote: "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless, when in cases of rebellion or invasion, public safety may require." How do you deal with that? We don't have either rebellion or an invasion.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Mr. Chairman, I guess one could make that argument.

WELNA: Graham maintained only Americans are covered by constitutional protections. Specter replied with a prediction.

Sen. SPECTER: If this bill is passed, we're going to be right back here at a later date.

WELNA: The bill likely will be passed, though legal scholars say it too will face court challenges and an uncertain future. What is certain is that Election Day is now less than six weeks away.

David Welna, NPR News.

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