Senate Passes Detainee Rights Bill

The Senate approves a bill that would establish a system of military commissions for trying Guantanamo detainees. The bill also sets rules for interrogating terrorism suspects. It's almost identical to legislation passed by the House on Wednesday.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary. This weekend, your senators and congressmen return home. They're campaigning to keep their jobs in the fall elections. Before leaving Washington, the House approved the Bush administration's domestic spying program. The Senate approved a plan to put detainees on trial. National security will be a major issue this fall, and we start our coverage with NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR:

Capping nearly a week of debate over the detainees legislation, the Senate approved the measure on a 65 to 34 vote after a final emotional debate. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, angrily denounced the legislation, which would set rules for the treatment of detainees and their trials. Leahy said the measure was unconstitutional, and he harshly criticized the Bush administration for proposing it.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): This administration, for all its talk of strength, has made us less safe, and its current proposal is one that smacks of weakness and quivering fear. Its legislative demands reflect a cowering country that is succumbing to the threat of terrorism, and I believe that we Americans are better than that.

NAYLOR: The legislation would create a system of military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects. It would bar blatant abuse of detainees in questioning, but it would also give the administration authority to decide how far to go in interrogating suspects and provide legal protection for U.S. interrogators. The measure was a compromise between what the administration originally sought and stricter limits proposed by Republican dissident senators led by John McCain of Arizona. McCain said he was happy with the final measure.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This is very, very critical for the future security of this nation, and we've done the very best we can. I believe we've come up with a good product. I believe good faith negotiations have taken place.

NAYLOR: The measure now goes back to the House, which approved much the same bill earlier in the week. It's expected to reach the president's desk as soon as the weekend.

The House last night also approved another item sought by the White House. It authorizes the president's domestic wiretapping program. It was sponsored by New Mexico Republican Heather Wilson.

Representative HEATHER WILSON (Republican, New Mexico): We need to update our laws so that we protect the civil liberties of Americans and that we keep Americans safe. The test is reasonableness, and I believe that the underlying bill passes the test.

NAYLOR: Wilson, like many in her party, is in a difficult bid for reelection, and passage of this measure, like the detainee legislation, gives Republicans an issue they believe will help them portray Democrats as soft on security. Democratic critics of the surveillance bill - among them Jerrold Nadler of New York - argued the proposal gives the president too much power.

Representative JERROLD NADLER (Democrat, New York): What the president wants and the Republican Congress is prepared to give is unrestrained authority to spy on anyone without having to answer to anyone. Once again, the president wants to be above the law, and this House appears ready to oblige him.

NAYLOR: But the surveillance bill is not likely to become law any time soon. A Senate panel has approved a much different measure, and Senate leaders say they will not bring it to the floor for consideration until a lame duck session after the election.

Brain Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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