July 26, 2005

Senate puts off fight on Pentagon detainee policies

By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate leaders were forced on
Tuesday to halt work on a major defense bill, postponing a
fight with the White House that threatened to veto it because
it restricted the Pentagon's treatment of military prisoners or
delayed work on base closings across the country.

After failing to get the 60 votes out of 100 needed to
restrict amendments on the defense bill authorizing $442
billion in defense programs, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist
moved on to legislation to give the gun industry broad
protections from civil liability lawsuits.

Democrats blasted Frist for dropping the defense bill in
favor of the gun legislation.

The U.S. Congress is slated to leave this weekend for a
monthlong recess, and will return on Sept. 5. Frist, a
Tennessee Republican, declined to say when he would return to
the defense bill.

"It appears that the Republican leadership is more
concerned about the gun lobbyists in three-piece suits than the
men and women who are serving our country in uniform," said
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.

The Bush administration had worked to block measures to ban
cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners pushed by fellow
Republicans including Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman
John Warner of Virginia and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The White House, under fire for the indefinite detention of
enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and questions over whether
its policies led to abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison,
threatened to veto the defense authorization bill if it
regulated the Pentagon's detainee procedures or called for
further investigations.

Vice President Dick Cheney met at the Capitol last week
with Warner, McCain and South Carolina Republican Lindsey
Graham to try to deter them from offering prisoner amendments.

But they said they would press ahead with measures
including barring the holding of "ghost" detainees whose names
are not disclosed, codifying a ban against cruel, inhumane or
degrading treatment, and using the Army manual as a basis for
all interrogations.

McCain said he was disappointed the defense bill was
pulled, but that the detainee issue remained alive.

"I'm here to stay on this issue. I think it's important we
have congressional blessing on what's going on" at Guantanamo,
added Graham.

Democrats said the White House did not want the issue
debated on the Senate floor, and said they thought the
legislation had enough bipartisan support to pass.

A bipartisan group of senators from states slated to be hit
hard by proposed military base closings also kept their efforts
alive to delay the base closings.

The Senate voted 50-48 on Frist's motion to curtail debate
on the bill, well short of the 60 votes needed.

Lawmakers agreed the defense bill will come up again this
year, and detainee policies likely will be debated along with
proposed military base closings and other measures including
expanded military benefits.

"Defense authorization is the only authorization bill that
must be taken up each year," said Carl Levin of Michigan, top
Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I don't think
the Senate is willing to trash that tradition in order to
satisfy the White House on various issues." (additional
reporting by Richard Cowan)