Senate: How much leeway for Bush?
A big question is whether to rein in or approve his war-on-terror policies.
Two weeks after the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's system for prosecuting war-on-terror detainees, congressional lawmakers are sharply divided over a plan to replace it.Skip to next paragraph
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In dramatic testimony in Congress this week, administration officials signaled that – even if Congress speaks with one voice in revamping the Bush plan for military commissions – the president and the Pentagon don't need lawmakers' advice.
Asked repeatedly to engage senators on what should be proper standards for the treatment of detainees, administration witnesses declined to respond. "What we need to address in legislation is the military commission procedures, and court review process," said Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department's witness at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld on Tuesday.
Several lawmakers disagreed. "I doubt very much that Congress is going to be disposed to leave these issues to the Department of Defense," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Senate Judiciary committee.
Responding to witness rebuffs of his proposal for revamping treatment of detainees, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) said: "If you fight that approach, it's going to be a long, hot summer."
At stake is whether the GOP-controlled Congress will give President Bush the legislative cover he needs to continue to pursue the war on terror as he sees fit or whether lawmakers intend to rein him in.
Detainees are likely to be the first proving ground for Congress to determine the president's license in the war on terror.
"If the administration merely says to the Congress: We want you to rubberstamp the president's [tribunal] program as it exists, that would be the worst thing that could be done," says Scott Silliman, a retired Air Force judge advocate at Duke University School of Law. "If you're going to have a good system that is going to withstand court challenge and be looked at as fair and appropriate by the rest of the world, it can be done, but it requires both branches [Congress and the White House] working together."
In the months after the 9/11 attacks, lawmakers proposed working with the White House to develop a plan for the treatment of detainees in the war on terror, but the president opted to go it alone. The Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld puts Congress back in the mix.
From detainee rights to domestic surveillance without a warrant and other programs yet undisclosed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding enough information about programs to conduct oversight and, if necessary, draft new laws.
Following press disclosures last year of a secret program of domestic surveillance, Senator Specter has been negotiating with the White House over how to bring the program into conformity with existing law. But because most lawmakers have not been briefed on what the program actually does, many say they are forced to legislate in the dark.