A House panel yesterday approved a bill backing the Bush administration's approach to the treatment of terrorism suspects, although the number of Republican lawmakers breaking with the White House on the issue is growing.
The House Judiciary Committee approved on a 20-19 vote a bill that would closely follow Bush administration requests on guidelines for interrogations and trials of detainees in the war on terrorism, with Democrats picking up two Republicans to oppose it.
Earlier in the day the Republican-controlled committee hadn't mustered enough votes to approve it because a few Republicans were absent, and the bill was killed, 20-17. After rounding up their troops, Republicans held a series of procedural votes and eventually approved the measure.
The embarrassing struggle hinted of a tough road ahead for the House bill. Opponents yesterday argued that the administration and its congressional allies are trying to redefine U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions in order to give terrorism detainees fewer rights and the government more leeway in how to treat them.
"If we dilute ... the Geneva Conventions, other countries will feel inclined to do the same," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who voted against the bill, along with Rep. Bob Inglis, South Carolina Republican. Mr. Flake predicted Congress will ultimately endorse a bill like the Senate version, which affords more civil rights to the detainees and rejects Mr. Bush's definition of detainee treatment.
"I think this is where we're going to end up," he said.
The administration has said the Senate bill -- written by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican -- would limit intelligence gathering and expose classified information to terrorists. Mr. Warner and a group of Senate Republicans continued their talks yesterday with White House officials as they strive to reach a deal.
Many House Republicans defended Mr. Bush yesterday -- arguing that although terrorism suspects should be treated and tried fairly, military officials must be given enough freedom to interrogate and gather information needed to protect the country.
"What we're trying to do is strike a balance," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican. "I'd rather err on the side of protecting our citizens."
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner said the House bill is expected to come to a House vote next week and "provides the president with crucial tools for waging and winning the global war on terror." In a political jab, he attacked Judiciary Committee Democrats for opposing it, but didn't mention the Republicans who did or the initial committee vote.
"Today's vote by Democrats to unanimously oppose this bill is just one more in a long line of troubling actions that weaken our ability to wage and win the global war on terror, and it underscores why Americans don't trust Democrats on important national security issues," said the Ohio Republican.
Democrats had harsh words for the administration and Republicans.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said the "lawless" administration has tortured detainees and now wants Congress to approve more of the same. "That's what this debate is all about," he said.
He and other Democrats tried unsuccessfully yesterday to kill a provision in the bill that would bar the detainees from suing the government for their detention, treatment or conditions where they were held.
Meanwhile, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence gave voice-vote approval to a bill that would make lawful the administration's program of warrantless wiretapping of terrorism suspects. Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican, rewrote the bill to make it more acceptable to Mr. Bush.
The House Judiciary Committee also approved a similar bill yesterday 20-16, but only after the panel stripped out the sections that approved Mr. Bush's surveillance program. An aide said panel Democrats were "going nuts" about that, so it was easier to take it out and leave it up to the intelligence panel.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.