The Senate gave its final approval yesterday for President Bush’s proposal for interrogating and prosecuting the terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, sending the legislation to the White House for Mr. Bush’s signature.
Immediately after that vote, the Senate agreed to vote today on the bill to construct 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. After a week of stalling the bill, Democrats supported the procedural move.
The terrorist tribunal bill, a modified version of a proposal offered by Mr. Bush, passed on an 65-34 vote. Fifty-three Republicans and 12 Democrats voted for the bill. Thirty-two Democrats were joined by Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island Republican, and Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, in voting against the measure. One Republican — Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine — did not vote.
“This legislation recognizes that we are a nation at war,” said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “We are not conducting a law-enforcement operation against a check-writing scam or trying to foil a bank heist. We are at war against extremists who want to kill our citizens, cripple our economy and discredit the principles we hold dear — freedom and democracy.”
Mr. Bush promised to sign the bill.
“I applaud Congress for passing legislation that will provide our men and women in uniform with the necessary resources to protect our country and win the war on terror,” he said. “As our troops risk their lives to fight terrorism, this bill will ensure they are prepared to defeat today’s enemies and address tomorrow’s threats. I look forward to signing this bill into law.”
Minority Whip Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, led most of his caucus in opposing the plan because, he said, it does not provide the terror suspects with enough of the civil rights granted to Americans facing trials in U.S. courts.
“The national-security policies of this administration and Republican Congress may have been tough, but they haven’t been smart,” he said moments before the vote. “The American people are paying a price for their mistakes.”
Voting for the bill, Mr. Reid said, would be a “grave error,” and he predicted that it would be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
“The framers of our Constitution understood the need for checks and balances, but this bill discards them,” he said.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and likely 2008 presidential candidate, joined Mr. Reid in opposing the legislation.
“Democrats and Republicans alike believe that terrorists must be caught, captured, sentenced, punished,” she said. “I believe there can be no mercy for those who perpetrated 9/11 and other crimes against humanity, but in the process of accomplishing what I believe is essential for our security, we must hold on to our values and set an example that we can point to with pride, not shame.”
Most of the Democrats who bolted their party leadership and voted for the bill either face tough re-election campaigns or hail from Republican-leaning states. The former category includes Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who all voted to approve the plan.
“We must remember that these detainees are terrorists engaged in an ongoing war against the United States,” Mr. Menendez said after the vote. “Therefore, it is important that these terrorists are tried in military commissions that afford a fair and reliable prosecution consistent with our national-security interests. I believe this bill does that.”
Mr. Chafee, of Rhode Island, has the opposite political problem. The latest polls have him trailing Sheldon Whitehouse slightly in his re-election battle in one of the nation’s most liberal states.
Throughout the day yesterday, Republicans thwarted several amendments, including one that would have granted detainees habeas corpus rights to challenge tribunal decisions in federal court. The passing of any amendment would have derailed the House-passed bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, was among those who opposed that amendment.
“I’m going to sleep very good casting my vote,” the former Air Force lawyer said. “I think I’ve got a decent moral compass about what we should be doing to people.”
Within minutes of the vote, Republicans issued political attacks on vulnerable Democrats.
“Debbie Stabenow today sided with trial lawyers and terrorists instead of common sense,” Brian Walton, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said after she voted for the amendment. “Stabenow’s continued incompetence when it comes to keeping America safe is staggering.”
Also yesterday, the House approved the Bush administration’s terrorist surveillance program aimed at capturing international communications between terrorist plotters.
“You can’t say that you’re serious about taking on the terrorists if you stand up here every day and vote ‘no,’” said Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
The bill passed last night on a near party-line 232-191 vote, with Republicans backing the bill 214-13, and Democrats opposing by 177-18, plus a “no” vote from the chamber’s one independent. But the bill has no immediate prospect for approval in the Senate.