Harold Ford
Mark Humphrey  /  AP file
Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., who is in a close Senate race in Tennessee, has praised the Senate detainee bill negotiated by Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., and the Bush administration.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/26/2006 6:37:03 PM ET 2006-09-26T22:37:03

With adjournment looming by week’s end, Republican congressional leaders will put to a vote in the next few days a bill setting forth new rules for interrogation and trial of Guantanamo detainees, a vote that will put some candidates in both parties on the spot.

Democrats do not seem inclined to go all-out to block passage of the detainee bill, but they are negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on offering amendments to the bill. As of mid-day Tuesday, the Democrats and Republicans had not reached accord on a time for a final vote on the bill.

"We can't stop a vote on it this week," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid Tuesday. He said a Senate vote to curtail debate on the detainee bill would take place Wednesday morning and he added, "we can't stop that."

Some Democrats are disheartened that their party’s leadership hasn’t fought harder against the detainee bill, whose road to enactment was smoothed last Thursday when three GOP senators, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John Warner of Virginia, struck a deal with the Bush administration on details of detainee interrogation and treatment.

Senate Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin said one provision in the bill that he and other Democrats objected to and would try to remove is what he called "a torture amnesty. I think it is very difficult to explain to the world that we stand by the Geneva Conventions, but we will forgive those who have violated them."

He was referring to a provision in the detainee bill that provides retroactive immunity to CIA operatives for potential violations of the 1996 War Crimes Act.

Asked there were enough votes to stop the bill by means of a filibuster, Durbin said he had not done a whip count of Democratic senators.

With at least a half dozen Senate races and probably 30 House races extremely close, the detainee issue could be one incremental factor that drives voters to cast their ballot on Election Day.

Polling data suggests the detainee issue may boost Republican voter turnout more than Democratic turnout.

GOP leaders could pair the detainee bill with legislation authorizing President Bush’s National Security Agency surveillance program.

The NSA program eavesdrops on international communications between suspected al Qaida operatives and contacts in the United States.

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Such a combined package would give GOP leaders the prospect of an even bigger litmus test vote, with the election only six weeks away.

Another option that the Senate GOP leadership was considering late Monday: attach the detainee legislation to a bill the Senate is debating that would authorize building of a 700-mile fence on the Mexican border.

Political consequences
For Democratic candidates in close races, it might be difficult to say “no” to a combination of a border fence and a detainee bill. On the other hand, a vote for the detainee bill could be fodder for charges that a senator or House member supports mistreatment of detainees.

Under the accord, torture continues to be banned. Also banned is “serious physical abuse.” But the bill will permit stressful and aggressive interrogation methods.

One Democrat in a close Senate race who looks like a "yes" vote on the bill: Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. of Tennessee, who said he was happy McCain and Bush "came to agreement on how to bring terrorists to justice swiftly and constitutionally. This is not a political issue. This is about keeping Tennesseans and Americans safe. Congress should vote immediately for a law that does exactly that."

Late Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he was still discussing with Democratic leader Harry Reid procedures to bring the detainee bill to a vote.

2006 key racesSenate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., held a hearing Monday on a provision in the bill that would block detainees from contesting their imprisonment using the habeas corpus statute.

A writ of habeas corpus allows a prisoner to force the government to explain why they are being held.

In 2004 the Supreme Court declared in a case called Rasul v. Bush that alleged enemy combatants at Guantanamo have the right to get a habeas corpus hearing before a federal judge.

The detainee bill would essentially undo the Rasul decision. Specter will seek to offer an amendment to allow Guantanamo detainees to get habeas corpus hearings.

Protests against 'rushing' the detainee bill
In testimony to Specter’s committee, Thomas Sullivan, a Chicago lawyer who represents seven Saudis held at Guantanamo, denounced GOP leaders for “rushing (the detainee bill) up here just before elections where people are afraid to vote against this bill because somebody on the other side is going to put up a TV commercial and criticize them for it.”

(Sullivan contributed to the Senate campaigns of Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Barack Obama and to the 2004 presidential campaigns of Democrats John Kerry and Carol Moseley Braun.)

Likewise, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D- Vt. complained that “the administration’s sudden and belated haste to move ahead makes no sense, other than as a matter of crass electoral politics.”

Democrats hoped Monday that Specter might find other Republicans such as Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio -– in a tight re-election race -- to join him in opposing the bill, perhaps allying with enough Democrats to defeat it on a straight up-or-down vote.

Disheartened rank-and-file Democrats
Some rank-and-file Democrats voiced dismay that the detainee bill looks headed to enactment.

“I'm heartbroken,” wrote a blogger with the pseudonym “Georgia10” at the Daily Kos website. “It pains me to watch our nation legalize torture with Democrats (so far) offering nothing more than a shrug.  Sure, there's grumbling on the left over the torture bill, but can Democrats stop it? Will they even try?”

“Why shouldn’t we (i.e., people who maintain some loyalty, however foolish, to the Democratic Party) expect ‘our’ leaders at least to filibuster the bill until after the election?” asked University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson, in a posting on the blog “Balkinization.”

The question for Election Day is: If congressional Democrats don’t find some way to block the detainee bill, will that cause a demoralization of the Democratic base, causing lower turnout on Nov. 7?

“I think there is a risk that rank-and-file Democrats will become angered at Democratic leaders,” said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director for MoveOn.org. “But we’ll be telling the story that this is George Bush trying to legalize torture and the Republican Congress rubber-stamping it.”

He dismissed the negotiations between McCain and the Bush administration as “Republicans putting on a kabuki dance.” He added, “If Republicans think legalizing torture plays to their political advantage, they haven’t been paying attention.”

It makes sense for GOP leaders to push the detainee issue because it appeals to their base. A Gallup Poll conducted Sept. 15-17 found that terrorism ranks as the number one election issue for Republicans. When presented with an array of six issues, including Iraq, terrorism ranked first for Republicans, with 29 percent of GOP voters picking it as the top issue. Only seven percent of Democrats saw terrorism as the most important issue in the Nov. 7 election.

The Gallup survey found that Iraq is the most pressing issue for Democrats.

GOP majorities in House and Senate mean that Republican leaders can put the detainee and NSA issue to an up-or-down vote.

But Democrats leaders have been unwilling to try to force a vote on the resolution by 19 House Democrats to cut off funding for the Iraq war.

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