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Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Tim, there’s been a real showdown on Capitol Hill between President George W. Bush and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee - not only over rules of engagement in the war, but how America treats and tries detainees.  For instance, should the U.S. have blown up those 190 Taliban leaders seen in that aerial photo at a funeral?  Has the president hit a serious snag in his efforts to unite his party against the Democrats in the war on terror?

Russert:  It is a big debate.  And the interesting thing is it’s largely amongst Republicans.  You have Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, Sen. Lindsay, Graham, R-SC and Sen. John Warner, R-VA, George W. Bush’ former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Ronald Reagan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Vessey all saying they disagree with President Bush’s attempt to interpret the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners.  And the Democrats are largely standing on the sidelines saying, “Go at it gentlemen.”

It’s a very important and a very intense debate. 

The interesting thing is Colin Powell weighed in Thursday on a judgment about the war on terror and the perceived moral authority of the United States.  It’s quite striking, because on the lead-up to the war in Iraq, it was clearly Colin Powell who was the most reluctant member of the administration, but in the end probably the most important in making the case before the United Nations and the country.

So this is a real fissure we’re watching within the Republican Party.

MSNBC:  Why are they opposing the reinterpretation?

Russert:  Because they say if you try to reinterpret the Geneva Convention, it will allow every country around the world to do the same.  And they might interpret it in a way that could be harmful to American prisoners who were captured.

McCain says that he will amend the War Crimes Act, which would give the CIA and others protection to do what they want to do, but don’t go near the Geneva Convention.

The administration argues that you have to interpret the Geneva Convention so that our people are fully protected.

It’s a very, very important debate.  It’s a bit complicated, but it’s one that has high stakes because of the nature of the opposition.

MSNBC:  But don’t they have to do something soon, because of the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that Congress must approve a system and the president can’t just invent a whole new way of handling detainees and any kind of trial?

Russert:  Right.  And what John McCain is saying is rather than interpret the Geneva Convention and giving the green light for countries all around the world to do the same, we can, in our own law, amend the War Crimes act, which would give the protection the president wants for CIA interrogators and others.  McCain believes if you do it the other way – interpret the Geneva Convention – it could put our troops at risk. 

The administration counters they need to articulate an interpretation of the Geneva Convention to protect the people who do the difficult work of trying to draw information out of those captured.

MSNBC:  So, their point is America doesn’t want everybody around the world re-interpreting any part of the Geneva Convention, if there were a case where some of the United States’ troops are held by the bad guys?

Russert:  That’s their view – the McCain view.  And he points to a situation in Mogadishu, where one American was taken captive and they were able to prevail upon those holding him to treat him according to the Geneva Convention.

They’re trying to negotiate it out and they’re working around the clock, but these are significant philosophical differences between two very serious men – John McCain and George W. Bush – on a difficult subject.

Colin Powell also talked about the war on terror and our morale standing in the world.  Colin Powell is the person who went to the United Nations and made the case for the war in Iraq – for the world and for the country.  He was seen as the most reluctant of the Bush Administration officials.  And when I read that letter Thursday, I sensed that, having interviewed former Secretary Powell about the regret he feels for some of the things he said at his U.N. presentation, perhaps this is a further indication about his unease with the Bush foreign policy.

MSNBC:  Will this be a part of the conversation Sunday, on Meet the Press, when you continue your candidates’ debate?

Russert:  Sure.  And what a Senate race to be focusing on – Virginia, with Republican George Allen and Democrat Jim Webb. 

The race, according to every poll I have seen, is within three or four points – with Sen. Allen slightly ahead.  And there are some big differences on the issues, as we have seen in other races, on the war on Iraq particularly, as well as on social and cultural issues.

Jim Webb has never been a candidate for political office and I’m very interested to see him debate.

Sen. Allen, I think, is still feeling the fallout from his comments about using the word “macaca’ in describing a dark skinned gentleman who had been filming one of Allen’s campaign events for the Webb campaign.

I have found that these debates – certainly the first one this year with Pennsylvania’s Santorum and Casey – are well watched around the country, because they’re seen as a metaphor for what’s at stake for America in the midterm elections of 2006.

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.

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