US Sen Warner and White House National Security Advisor Hadley attend announcement on bill in Washington
Jim Young  /  Reuters
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, left, and White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley listen to questions at an announcement on an accord between President  Bush and Senate Republicans on interrogating terrorism suspects.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/21/2006 7:21:47 PM ET 2006-09-21T23:21:47

The accord between President Bush and Republican Senate leaders announced Thursday afternoon on tribunals for al Qaida detainees at Guantanamo Navy Base sets up litmus-test votes both in the House and Senate next week.

These votes fit into the Republican strategy of scheduling showdowns that will highlight differences between the two parties in the run-up to the Nov. 7 elections.

The effect may be to put Democrats in close races on the spot — Democrats such as Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey and Rep. Sherrod Brown, who’s running for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio.

Just a few hours before the deal was announced, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid had held a press conference in which he mocked GOP leaders for being unable to come up with an agreement on detainee interrogation and tribunals.

He scoffed at the Republican “do nothing Congress.”

But now it seems likely that Republican leaders will have at least two significant bills to vote on next week, a Mexican border fence bill and the detainee tribunal bill.

Who won? Who lost?
Bush’s national security advisor Stephen Hadley, standing next to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Sen. John Warner at Thursday’s announcement, said, “It is good news and a good day for the American people.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., observed that, “Always in this business people say who’s the winners and who’s the losers. There’s none. We’re all winners because we’ve been able to come to an agreement through a process of negotiation and consensus….”

“I’m very pleased that long-term policy considerations trumped the political moment,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who along with Warner and McCain had opposed Bush on the detainee tribunal issue until Thursday’s deal was clinched.

Despite those disclaimers, it is a political moment and there surely are — with five weeks to go until the election — some who reap benefits and some who come away disappointed.

Political winners, assuming the detainee deal is drafted and goes to a floor vote in the the House and Senate:

  • Bush: In return for making some concessions, he gets clear guidance for CIA interrogators on what they can and can’t do to detainees and he ends an intra-party impasse.  
  • McCain: Conservative commentators had attacked him for blocking Bush on the detainee tribunals but now he can resume his courtship of the GOP rank and file as he looks to the 2008 presidential nomination.

Probable losers: Civil libertarians who may still object to the tribunals and Democrats who have been laying low on the issue, apparently assuming that McCain-Bush impasse would prevent any deal. “They painted themselves into a corner,” said GOP Senate aide Don Stewart. “They said, ‘I’m with McCain,’ and now McCain has reached an agreement.”

Unresolved issues
Meanwhile, one unresolved question is whether pending suits by detainees claiming they have a habeas corpus right to contest their imprisonment should be permitted to go forward.

2006 key races

“They are many of us that are concerned about this habeas corpus issue,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said Wednesday before the deal was unveiled. “We don’t know what will be in the final bill, but if they (Republicans) try to remove and extinguish up to 50 pending lawsuits where prisoners who have been held for years are asking (to contest) the charges brought against them, they’ll be some of us who’ll be ready to fight that on the Senate floor.”

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This being election season, as soon as a reporter heard Durbin say that, she pounced on the political angle, asking whether in the run-up to Election Day, Durbin’s stance might be “a risky strategy” for Democrats “because it might make it look like you’re siding with terrorists?”

“Standing up for the Constitution can be risky at times,” Durbin replied.

There may also be a vote next week on legislation regulating the National Security Agency’s surveillance of international phone calls between suspected al Qaida operatives and people.

Democrats resent the way GOP leaders are setting this vote up as an election prelude.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, complained that “the (Bush) administration is trying to scare people and tell people that we (Democrats) don’t care about fighting terrorism.”

Electronic surveillance
Responding to a ruling by Federal district judge Anna Diggs Taylor last month that the NSA surveillance program was unconstitutional, Republicans crafted a bill that would allow the president to order electronic surveillance for up to 90 days without getting a warrant when there’s an imminent threat of a terrorist attack. The bill would also give him the power to order surveillance for up to 60 days following an attack on the United States.

Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican fighting a difficult re-election battle against Democrat Patricia Madrid in New Mexico’s First Congressional District, is the chief sponsor of the bill.

The Intelligence Committee OK’d Wilson’s bill Wednesday and the full House will likely vote on it next week.

But Democrats denounced Wilson and her bill, with Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Rep. Jane Harman of California saying Republicans on the Intelligence Committee were driven “by the cold calculus of partisan politics…. The committee has become partisan tool designed to improve Republican chances in the November elections.”

And that’s precisely the question: Will the surveillance bill improve Republican chances in the November elections? How many Democrats will vote “no” on the bill, and will voters punish them for doing so?

Republican leaders in the House and Senate still face the tangled problem of which of several competing surveillance bills, including Wilson’s, to bring to the floor for a vote or how to meld the various bills into one.

The Senate’s vote next week on the Mexican border fence poses a dilemma for Democrats, as Durbin acknowledged to reporters.

Durbin said Thursday he did not know if enough Democrats would vote against a motion to cut off debate and bring the bill to final vote.

“It’s politically tough,” Durbin said. “They (Republicans) are trying to produce a vote that is translated into a 30-second ad that defeats a Democrat. That’s what this is all about. Some of our (Democratic) colleagues…feel hard pressed and I understand their predicament.”

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., dared Democrats to try to stop the border fence legislation.

If Democrats don’t allow the bill to come to vote, Santorum said, “This will be another exercise of the other side of the aisle blocking solid accomplishments the American people want to see done.”

Santorum, who a new Keystone Poll Thursday showed five percentage points behind his Democratic foe Bob Casey Jr., said Republicans were responding to public demand for action to deter illegal immigration.

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