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GOP Senators Break with President over Detaineess

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Four leading Republican senators yesterday clashed with the White House over proposed legislation on how terror suspects should be treated. The GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee passed a version of the bill that the White House says is unacceptable.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports that the Bush administration's goal of passing the measure it wants before mid-term elections is in doubt.

DON GONYEA: When President Bush announced last week that al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other detainees who had been held in secret CIA prisons were being transferred to Guantanamo, Mr. Bush called on Congress to quickly pass legislation he sent to the Hill laying the legal foundation for tribunals to bring them to justice. The president presented it as a clear choice for lawmakers. But as yesterday's developments played out, it was evident that this would not be resolved quickly.

Press Secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): It is not unusual for people to work hard through these things. And I don't think either side wants to be pressed into a corner.

GONYEA: But what makes this very unusual is that the big obstacle for the president in the Senate comes from three top Republicans: John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They have expressed concerns that the president's plan denies detainees some basic rights. They argued that that could call into question the legality of any detainee trials that are held. They also say it could affect the treatment of U.S. military personnel if they are captured by the enemy.

The Bush administration and these Republicans are also in disagreement over a section of the Geneva Conventions known as Common Article 3. The White House says it speaks of cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners but doesn't spell out what that means. Tony Snow tried to downplay the conflict yesterday.

Mr. SNOW: This is not a crisis. This is, in fact, the very important business of trying to figure out how to proceed, how to write laws.

GONYEA: Also unusual yesterday: a pair of letters to Senators arguing different points of view, one by current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and one by her predecessor, Colin Powell, who wrote to Senator McCain. Powell wrote, quote, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts."

Rice's letter to Senator Warner countered that the legislation the president wants would strengthen U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions because it would, quote, "add meaningful definition and clarification to vague terms."

There was one other letter of note, this one released by the White House. It was from senior military lawyers saying they do not object to what the president wants regarding some changes to Common Article 3. Earlier, in testimony before Congress, these military lawyers had expressed strong concerns, and yesterday's letter still stopped short of a full endorsement of the White House position.

Yesterday in the Oval Office, the president was asked about the debate.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If there's any doubt in our professionals' mind that they can conduct their operations in a legal way with support of the Congress, the program won't go forward and the American people will be endangered.

GONYEA: But that's clearly a point on which the president is finding strong disagreement, even from within his own party.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.