WASHINGTON -- Congress is poised to approve rules for interrogating and trying suspected terrorists, a key piece of the national security agenda that Republicans aim to showcase in their fight to hold onto control of Congress.
The House passed the measure yesterday and the Senate is expected to follow suit today as President Bush pays his second visit to Capitol Hill this month to push his anti-terrorism initiatives.
The military tribunal bill is expected to be one of Congress' final acts before recessing this weekend to return to the campaign trail. If the Senate passes the same bill as the House, as GOP leaders hope, it could reach the president's desk for a prime-time signing ceremony in the run-up to the November election.
The bill was drafted in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down Bush administration rules for trying suspected terrorists before military commissions. The issue has been debated since then, but the legislation did not fall into place until recently. It has moved quickly through Congress.
The measure is among a spate of security-focused bills that congressional Republicans have rushed to pass to spotlight an issue they consider their party's strength - national security. However, another bill they wanted to pass - authorizing Bush's once- secret warrantless surveillance program - is unlikely to clear Congress before the election.
The tribunal bill approved by the House, 253-168, would preserve tough interrogation tactics that the administration credits for helping thwart terrorist plots. It also would pave the way for trials of at least two dozen suspected terrorists, including alleged Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We must remember that we are fighting a different kind of enemy - and a different kind of war," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said as the Senate opened debate on the measure. "To win this war, we must provide our military, intelligence and law enforcement communities the tools they need to keep us safe."
But Sen. Carl Levin, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, objected that the measure would be "used by our terrorist enemies as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to proclamations of human rights."
Human rights groups warned that provisions such as prohibiting detainees from challenging their imprisonment in court and permitting the use of coerced evidence in trials under certain circumstances puts the bill on dubious legal footing.
Human rights groups also objected that the measure could subject detainees to brutal treatment - a contention that the bill's supporters disputed, noting that it had received the blessing of Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. He is a former POW who was tortured in Vietnam.
Previewing GOP plans to use the measure in the campaign, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, challenged Democrats to vote against it. "Will my Democrat friends work with Republicans to give the president the tools he needs to continue to stop terrorist attacks before they happen - or will they again vote to force him to fight the terrorists with one arm tied behind his back?" he asked.
Maryland's two Republicans, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, were among seven in their party to break ranks with Bush and oppose the measure, as did 160 Democrats, including the six from Maryland.
Bartlett said he had not had enough time to study the measure and "feel comfortable and confident that it upholds civil liberties," and he worried about potential "unintended consequences," said Lisa Wright, a spokeswoman.
Gilchrest, a Vietnam War veteran, said he opposed the measure because it appeared to grant the president power to flout international rules against prisoner mistreatment and would deny terrorism suspects the right to challenge the legality of their detention.
The bill "fogs the issue" of whether the United States will abide by the Geneva Conventions, Gilchrest said, and glosses over serious disagreements in both parties about how to treat and try detainees.
"Congress should have come to a consensus before we did this. There was no consensus," Gilchrest said.
Democrats accused Republicans of rushing to pass a legally suspect bill to score political points. Within an hour of the vote, the House GOP leadership put out a statement accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.
A bipartisan effort led by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to strip out the provision preventing detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions - demands for legal justification for their imprisonment - is expected to come before the Senate today. The Senate measure is the product of a compromise between the White House and Senate Republicans led by McCain. The House and Senate bills allow the administration to use interrogation methods that would be tougher than what the military uses, but do not specify exactly what is permitted or what would be banned.
Water boarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe he is going to drown, would be banned, according to those who helped broker the deal. McCain allies and some human rights advocates say the language of the bill would ban sleep deprivation and exposing detainees to extreme temperatures.
"I don't think that the CIA will be comfortable going back to those techniques if McCain, the chief architect of the compromise, believes those techniques are against the law," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
But other human rights lawyers are less sanguine. Jumana Musa, an advocacy director of Amnesty International, says the Bush administration has a record of interpreting congressional laws creatively and permissively. And she adds that under the compromise, there is no way to ensure that the CIA will treat its detainees humanely.
"This bill doesn't say what techniques are prohibited," Musa said. "That is the problem with a system that has no check and an administration with a long and colorful record of broad interpretations of the law."
Richard Simon and Julian Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.