White House, GOP Senators Discuss Detainees Negotiations continue between the White House and key Senate Republicans who have resisted the president's plans for interrogating and trying terrorism suspects. But reaching a deal may take longer than expected.
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White House, GOP Senators Discuss Detainees

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White House, GOP Senators Discuss Detainees

White House, GOP Senators Discuss Detainees

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's a new twist today in the two-week-old dispute over how to handle suspected terrorists. The White House has been at odds with some leading Senators on the matter. Today those Senators received new language from the administration aimed at bridging the differences.

But as NPR's David Welna reports, it's still unclear whether the GOP's impasse will be broken.

DAVID WELNA: Neither the White House nor the Republicans who dug in their heels over rules for terror suspects are very happy about being so publicly at loggerheads just weeks before crucial mid-term elections. If anyone's happy, it's Senate Democrats, who have been avidly watching the ruling party fight it out. Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, said today it was telling that the White House felt compelled to propose new language.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): It's an indication of weakness. You need to get this process in your direction again. They were losing ground. After General Powell made his statement, the number of Republicans who had serious misgivings about the administration policy started to grow, and now General Vessey, General Shalikashvili and others have joined in this chorus. I think the administration understands they're back on their heels.

WELNA: But Texas Republican John Cornyn, who's a close ally of the White House and who's seen the new language on detainees, says the Bush administration has simply come up with a different approach to protecting U.S. intelligence officials. Rather than redefining the pertinent article in the Geneva Conventions, a move sharply opposed by the Republican holdouts, Cornyn says the idea is to spell out what is or what isn't permissible under a statute to be passed by Congress.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Coming at it another way, primarily through what's listed as a war crime and what the standards are for American personnel, to provide that clarity that has been so important all along. I think that's the general approach that the White House has proposed. My understanding is there may well in fact be a counterproposal that's heading back over to the White House.

WELNA: Such a counterproposal would suggest the holdouts regarded the White House offer unacceptable. But Arizona Republican John McCain, whose opposition to the White House is risking conservative support for his own presidential ambitions, was not showing his hand today on where the negotiations stand.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Look, I can't comment. We are continuing the process and we're continuing negotiations. And that's all I can say. It changes from hour to hour, and anything I say may not be accurate. We're proceeding with the process. I have been through this many times before. And we try to reach a conclusion. Most of the time we do, sometimes we don't.

WELNA: And it's not clear whether this will be one of the times they do. While McCain tried to strike a diplomatic tone today, the leader of Senate Republicans, Bill Frist, unleashed a cutting attack on the bill backed by McCain, Armed Services Chairman John Warner and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Maryland): The Warner/McCain/Graham bill subjects our personnel to international courts and vague standards, ambiguous standards, standards that have not been defined, which we know will force shutting down a very, very important program.

WELNA: Frist insisted that the White House legislation is the way for the Senate to go, legislation that would also allow secret or coerced evidence to be used against detainees. Frist also said the alternative passed last week by the Armed Services Committee is not ready for the Senate floor.

Senator FRIST: It is very clear to me that the Warner/McCain/Graham bill does not have sufficient votes, does not have 60 votes. That is very clear to me now.

WELNA: Still, Frist said he hoped to finish the detainees legislation before Congress adjourns at the end of next week for the mid-term campaign season. That may be a tall order. House GOP Leaders had planned to vote tomorrow on a bill closely resembling the White House's legislation, but that vote's been put off for at least a week. That's because a growing number of Republicans in the House now say they aren't willing to vote for the president's plan, either.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capital.

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