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Frist pulls defense bill to avoid votes on treatment of detainees

WASHINGTON _The Senate's Republican leader on Tuesday derailed a bipartisan effort to set rules for the treatment of enemy prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other military detention camps by abruptly stopping debate on a $491 billion defense bill.

The unusual move came after senators, including several leading Republicans, beat back an effort by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to block amendments setting standards for military-prisoner interrogations and delaying base closings scheduled for approval later this year. The White House had threatened to veto the defense-spending legislation if it contained either of those provisions.

Rather than risk debate and votes on those amendments, Frist, R-Tenn., simply pulled the bill from consideration. The bill would have set defense spending levels for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1, and it includes authority to spend $50 billion on military operations in Iraq.

"It just doesn't make sense to leave defense authorization," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading sponsor of the interrogation-standard amendment. "We need to make sure that every member of the Department of Defense understands the procedures that are being used in interrogation and we don't have a repetition of Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to the prison in Iraq that became synonymous with detainee abuse.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a longtime opponent of the base-closure process, said he supported a delay in this year's round of scheduled closings despite White House opposition.

"Where I'm from we would call that tough tamales. The administration is wrong on BRAC," he said, using the acronym for the Base Realignment and Closure Commission that recommends which bases should be shut down. "The timing is right in the middle of war."

By delaying action on the legislation, possibly into September, Frist put off potentially embarrassing defeats for President Bush. But his failure to block the amendments outright—he needed 60 votes to cut off debate under Senate rules but mustered only 50, to 48 against—means the Senate will have another opportunity to vote on military-detainee and base-closure issues later this year.

"These senators sent a message that until the Senate deals directly with the issues of interrogation and detainee treatment, the DOD bill will not get through the Senate," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, a group advocating for stricter rules for handling prisoners.

McCain had been working with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to respond to widely publicized cases of prisoner abuse. They proposed to set specific standards for the treatment of foreign detainees. Vice President Dick Cheney, in a meeting last Thursday, urged the three to back off.

But on Monday, McCain, Graham and Warner submitted an amendment that would have required that the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation cover prisoners in military custody.

The three, together with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also introduced an amendment that would prohibit cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners and would require the United States to abide by the Geneva Convention and other international agreements on the treatment of prisoners.

The two amendments likely would have received substantial Democratic support and had a strong chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., also had an amendment that would have set up an independent commission to study reports of abuse at military detention facilities.

And on Monday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he, too, was considering supporting such an independent investigation.

Last Thursday, in a statement of policy, the White House said: "The administration strongly opposes such amendments, which would interfere with the protection of Americans from terrorism by diverting resources from the war to answer unnecessary or duplicative inquiry or by restricting the president's ability to conduct the war effectively under existing law."

In support of his amendment, McCain read from a July 22 letter signed by 14 retired military officers, including Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, and Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, the Navy's judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000.

"The abuse of prisoners hurts America's cause in the war on terror, endangers U.S. service members who might be captured by the enemy and is anathema to the values Americans have held dear for generations," the letter stated.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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