Republican leaders in Congress said yesterday that they will draft legislation to grant the Bush administration the authority to try prisoners at Guantanamo Bay before a military tribunal, a move that sets up a contentious debate between Republicans and Democrats on a hot-potato national-security issue just four months before midterm elections.
Although the White House contended that the ruling does not effectively curb the president’s authority and congressional Democrats said the decision was a staggering defeat for a power-drunk executive branch, both parties will seek to use the divisive issue to define their political differences. The debate could put Democrats in the position of arguing to extend terror suspects’ rights in U.S. courts, giving Republicans an edge in a key election issue.
“Following the July Fourth recess, I will introduce legislation, in consultation with the administration and my colleagues, that authorizes military commissions and appropriate due-process procedures for trials of terrorist combatants,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday after the court’s decision.
Both parties now face a protracted fight over the scope and meaning of the Supreme Court ruling, with each side looking to capitalize on the security issue before the November elections.
“This sets up a battle royale, with the November elections just around the corner,” said one senior former administration official. “Congressional Democrats screamed bloody murder that the president didn’t have the authority to order military tribunals, well, now they have to decide.”
Shortly after yesterday’s ruling, Mr. Bush seemed content to punt the issue to Congress.
“To the extent that there is latitude to work with the Congress to determine whether or not the military tribunals will be an avenue in which to give people their day in court, we will do so,” he said during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
“There is a way forward with military tribunals in working with the United States Congress. As I understand, certain senators have already been out expressing their desire to what the Supreme Court found, and we will work with the Congress. I want to find a way forward,” the president said.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, called the decision “a stunning repudiation of the Bush administration’s lawless behavior at Guantanamo.”
“As we approach the Fourth of July, it is entirely appropriate that the Supreme Court has reminded the president and Secretary Rumsfeld that there is no excuse for ignoring the rule of law, even when our country is at war,” he said, referring to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Senate Republicans were eager to take on the issue and vowed to move swiftly to follow through on the opinion of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who set forth the path to a solution, writing, “Nothing prevents the president from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has criticized the administration’s handling of detainees in the war on terror and is holding up one of Mr. Bush’s nominees to the federal circuit bench over questions about torture, joined a statement yesterday in support of legislation to give the administration such authority.
“We intend to pursue legislation in the Senate granting the Executive Branch the authority to ensure that terrorists can be tried by competent military commissions,” Mr. Graham said in a joint statement with Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican. “Working together, Congress and the administration can draft a fair, suitable, and constitutionally permissible tribunal statute.”
Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Armed Services emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, said the ruling has “opened the door to a legislative remedy, and as Congress plays a key role in this debate, we’ll work with the administration to reach a solution.”
The Texas Republican also said the ruling does not call into question the U.S. government’s power to detain terrorists in wartime.
“This is critically important because we can’t allow terrorists to simply return home and restart their war plans. Guantanamo will remain open so long as it is in the national-security interests of the United States.”
Democrats, meanwhile, staked out territory on the other side of the issue. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, said the administration’s handling of the Guantanamo detainees had eroded its ability to fight a vigorous war on terror.
“For five years, the Bush-Cheney administration has violated fundamental American values, tarnished our standing in the world and hindered the partnerships we need with our allies,” he said. “This arrogance and incompetence have delayed and weakened the handling of the war on terror, not because of any coherent strategic view it had, but because of its stubborn unilateralism and dangerous theory of unfettered power.”
Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the ruling is an attempt to “rein in this administration’s pattern of overreaching and avoidance of judicial and congressional oversight.”
“The Supreme Court has verified what so many Americans have thought to be true — that the indefinite holding of individuals at Guantanamo Bay and the use of special, secret military tribunals that were not congressionally or judicially approved and reviewed is wrong,” he said.