WASHINGTON — For the Bush White House, this week's showdown with the Senate over US treatment of detainees sets up a rematch with a triumvirate of GOP senators who have been the president's strongest supporters in the war in Iraq – and his most effective critics.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina led the first push-back in the Senate over the war when they opposed the White House over its torture policy last year.
Now the trio is on a new collision course with the White House over how to bring suspected terrorists to trial – a must-pass bill, since the US Supreme Court overturned the president's plan for military tribunals in June.
Senator McCain, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, knows torture firsthand and brings moral authority to the issue. Torture is wrong, he says. Anything that weakens international protections for detainees, "threatens US troops in this and future wars," he said on Friday.
Senator Graham, a military lawyer with the Air Force Reserve for 22 years, said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that President Bush's detainee bill, including its "clarification" of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, would "redefine America in a way that we can't win this war."
Senator Warner, a former secretary of the Navy and now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he aims to pass legislation that will withstand further review by US courts.
"It would be a very serious blow to the credibility of the United States ... if legislation that was prepared by the Congress and signed [by] the president failed to meet a second Supreme Court review," he said during the committee's markup Thursday.
Senators Warner, McCain, and Graham, along with Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, voted with 11 Democrats on the panel, prompting renewed bids for a compromise with the White House over the weekend.
For Mr. Bush, the issue is national security. In a fiery press conference on Friday, he charged that the rival Senate bill, sponsored by McCain, Graham, and Warner, would derail a CIA program vital to the war on terror. "It's a debate that's really going to define whether we can protect ourselves," he said.
So far, GOP senators opposed to Bush's plan are not blinking.
"Weakening the Geneva protections is not only unnecessary, but would set an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights that they could issue their own legislative 'reinterpretations,' " responded McCain, in a statement responding to Bush on Friday. "This puts our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars."
With weeks to the midterm elections, GOP strategists had hoped to go into such a debate united. Instead, at least two other senators, including Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (R) and John Sununu (R) of New Hampshire, say they will back the McCain-Warner-Graham approach.
Together, McCain, Warner, and Graham led the first rebellion in the Senate over the conduct of the war in Iraq when they challenged the White House over its torture policy last year. The McCain amendment banning the use of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of terror suspects was adopted by the Senate on Oct. 5, 2005, with the support of 9 of 10 senators, and was signed into law on Jan. 6.
In a bid to rally support for new legislation on Capitol Hill, the White House is using the text of the McCain amendment to "clarify" the terms of the Geneva Conventions, especially the requirement of Common Article 3 banning "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
"I'm asking Congress to pass a clear law with clear guidelines based on the Detainee Treatment Act that was strongly supported by Senator John McCain," said Bush Friday.
But, ironically, the trio that produced the McCain amendment now sees it as a tool to weaken international protections for detainees by imposing a unilateral redefinition of the law. For now, the GOP revolt in the Armed Services Committee is giving cover to Senate Democrats, who don't want to head into another midterm election tagged with being weak in the war on terror.
On Sunday, Sen. Mitch McConnell said it would be awkward for Democrats to "go home and explain a vote ... to shut down an intelligence program that we know has helped save lives...."
"Questioning our policy in Iraq is not treason and it's not appeasement. It's our obligation under the Constitution," said Sen. Richard Durbin, the deputy Democratic leader, in a press briefing last week.
Last week, only eight Democrats voted against a detainee bill that is closely modeled on the president's version, when the House Armed Services Committee marked up its version of the 2006 Military Commissions Act on Sept 13.