WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday endorsed President Bush’s plans to prosecute and interrogate terror suspects, all but sealing congressional approval for legislation that Republicans intend to use on the campaign trail to assert their toughness on terrorism.
The 65-34 vote means the bill could reach the president’s desk by week’s end. The House passed nearly identical legislation on Wednesday and was expected to approve the Senate bill on Friday, sending it on to the White House.
The bill would create military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects. It also would prohibit blatant abuses of detainees but grant the president flexibility to decide what interrogation techniques are legally permissible.
The White House and its supporters have called the measure crucial in the anti-terror fight, but some Democrats said it left the door open to abuse, violating the U.S. Constitution in the name of protecting Americans.
Sponsor says intent ‘is to render justice’
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped draft the legislation during negotiations with the White House, said the measure would set up a system for treating detainees that the nation could be proud of. He said the goal “is to render justice to the terrorists, even though they will not render justice to us.”
Democrats said the Republicans’ rush to muscle the measure through Congress was aimed at giving them something to tout during the campaign, in which control of the House and Senate are at stake. Election Day is Nov. 7.
“There is no question that the rush to pass this bill — which is the product of secret negotiations with the White House — is about serving a political agenda,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Senate approval was the latest step in the remarkable journey that Bush has taken in shaping how the United States treats the terrorism suspects it has been holding, some for almost five years.
The Supreme Court nullified Bush’s initial system for trying detainees in June, and earlier this month a handful of maverick GOP senators embarrassed the president by forcing him to slightly tone down his next proposal. But they struck a deal last week, and the president and congressional Republicans are now claiming the episode as a victory.
While Democrats warned the bill could open the way for abuse, Republicans said defeating the bill would put the country at risk of another terrorist attack.
“We are not conducting a law enforcement operation against a check-writing scam or trying to foil a bank heist,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “We are at war against extremists who want to kill our citizens.”
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Approving the bill before lawmakers leave for the elections has been a top priority for Republicans. GOP leaders fought off attempts by Democrats and a lone Republican to change the bill, ensuring swift passage.
Bush had gone to Capitol Hill earlier Thursday, urging senators to follow the House lead and approve the plan. "The American people need to know we're working together to win the war on terror," he told reporters as he left.
Democrats have said the legislation would give the president too much latitude when deciding whether aggressive interrogations cross the line and violate international standards of prisoner treatment.
The Senate initially voted 48-51 against an amendment by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would have allowed terror suspects to file "habeas corpus" petitions in court. Specter contends the ability to such pleas is considered a fundamental legal right and is necessary to uncover abuse.
"This is a constitutional requirement and it is fundamental that Congress not legislate contradiction to a constitutional interpretation of the Supreme Court," said Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Three Republicans voted with Specter but others in the GOP caucus contended that providing terror suspects the right to unlimited appeals weighs down the federal court system.
"It impedes the war effort, and it is irresponsible," said Graham.
Democrats sided with Specter.
"The habeas corpus language in this bill is as legally abusive of rights guaranteed in the Constitution as the actions at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and secret prisons that were physically abusive of detainees," said Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel.
Detainee tribunals spelled out
The legislation will establish a military court system to prosecute terror suspects, a response to the Supreme Court ruling in June that Congress' blessing was necessary. Under the bill, a terrorist being held at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba can be tried by "military commission" so long as he is afforded certain rights, such as the ability to confront evidence given to the jury and access to defense counsel.
Those subject to the commission trials will be any person "who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents." Proponents say this definition would not apply to U.S. citizens but would allow the detention and prosecution of individuals financing terrorist networks.
While the bill spells out legal rights for the terror suspects to ensure a fair trial, it eliminates other rights common in military and civilian courts. For example, the commission will be allowed to consider hearsay as evidence so long as a judge determines it is reliable. Hearsay is frequently allowed in international military tribunals, but is barred from being considered in civilian courts.
Military commissions will be barred from considering evidence obtained by interrogation techniques since December 2005 that involve "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" as defined by the 5th, 8th and 14th amendments.
Coerced statements taken before the 2005 ban was put into effect would not be subjected to the same standard -- language Democrats charge creates a loophole for abuse.
The measure also provides extensive definitions of war crimes such as torture, rape and biological experiments, but gives the president broad authority to decide which other techniques U.S. interrogators may use legally. The provisions are intended to protect CIA interrogators from being prosecuted for war crimes.
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