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The Torture Debate on the Hill
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The Torture Debate on the Hill



Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee passed President Bush's proposal on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects, but not before jumping through some awkward parliamentary hoops. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was on Capitol Hill to watch an extraordinary day of political theater, and he joins us now from the Post's offices here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you back on the program, Dana.

Mr. DANA MILBANK (National Political Reporter, Washington Post): Good to be with you.

CONAN: Now we knew the White House plan faced problems in the Senate - the competing bill from John McCain and Warner and other Senators - but the president's proposals had been expected to sail through the House Judiciary Committee. What happened?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, the numbers looked pretty good. But, you know, one of the Republican members, his wife had had a baby, apparently. Two others were having a hearing elsewhere in the building, and two other rascals decided to go with the Democrats. So all of a sudden, the majority party was in the minority, and the Democrats were able to knock it down.

CONAN: Hmm. Yet there were truancy problems on both sides of the aisle.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, there were. I mean, and in fairness, the hearing goes on for nine hours. You can't expect any reasonable person to sit through the whole thing. But first the Democrats came within a vote of actually getting the McCain plan through in the House over the objections of the Republicans. But two of the Democrats were next door giving a press conference on Medicare.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: So the whole plan fell apart that way. But of course, you know, this is just a committee, and Chairman Sensenbrenner has the power to use forceful means - maybe even cruel and inhumane means - to bring his members back into the hearing room from other parts of the Capitol complex. And, in fact, he was able to overturn the vote in the end and get the result that he was looking for.

CONAN: Yeah. I wanted to quote a little piece of the debate that occurred. Representative Tom Feeney, a Republican of Florida, said about building a straw man: we just heard that not guaranteeing eight hours of sleep in Guantanamo has been interpreted by some as inhumane, he said. Who? demanded Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts - a Democrat - for nobody had said such a thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: But, you know, it's - when confronted with a very serious issue, our lawmakers frequently will be driven towards irrelevancy and extraneous comparisons. In fairness to these members, what happened here is Sensenbrenner, the chairman, demanded that his committee get to have action on the bill. But in fact they'd had no hearings on the bill. So these lawmakers were having to vote through something on which they really had very little knowledge, and in fact, nobody knows exactly what kind of questioning techniques are being used. But they said, well is it a matter of eight hours of sleep?

One of the members suggested that parents are being tortured by their teenagers because they play loud music, that American mothers are being tortured because they can't get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Questions about access to televisions and typewriters, directional arrows on the floors in prisons pointing to Mecca. It went on and on. You can see why this was an eight or nine hour proceeding.

CONAN: And it was voluntary - entirely on Chairman Sensenbrenner's part -because normally, this would've gone through the Armed Services Committee, no?

Mr. MILBANK: In fact, it did. It went through quite easily. And the House leaders said okay, right. Let's just bring it to the floor. But Sensenbrenner demanded, and they acquiesced to this demand. Now I suspect the next time Chairman Sensenbrenner makes such a demand, they'll thing twice about letting him have authority over this. The truth is it's all sort of academic anyway, because the House leaders - no matter what the Judiciary Committee passed - can bring up any bill they want in the House. So it was really just a matter of symbolism and which party could deal the other a black eye.

CONAN: And again, reading from your piece in this morning's Washington Post: Point of order. The point of order is not well taken, Sensenbrenner replied. I suggest the absence of a quorum. The chair rules that to be dilatory, the chairman answered. The same could've been said for much of the debate.

And at the end you quote Chairman Sensenbrenner saying, a good day's pay for a good day's work.

Mr. MILBANK: Well, at least he had a bit of a sense of humor when it was all done.

CONAN: Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Sketch column for the Washington Post, where he covers political theater. He joined us today from the Post's office here in Washington, D.C. Dana, thanks very much.

Mr. MILBANK: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: I'll be away for the next few weeks. NPR's Michel Martin will be here with you. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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