WASHINGTON -- House Democrats vowed yesterday to force a vote on a proposal to ban the use of torture, setting up a test of wills that could ultimately pit President Bush against Republican lawmakers who want a clearly defined policy on the treatment of foreign detainees.
GOP leaders allied with the White House are trying to block House members from taking up the measure, which was sponsored by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and which passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin as part of a defense spending bill. House Democrats as well as Republicans want the ban to be part of a final defense bill, and there appears to be enough bipartisan support to pass it.
Democrats said they intend to invoke a special rule that would force the House leadership to consider the measure, while Republican leaders seemed to be relying on stalling tactics to keep the issue from coming to a vote.
The amendment, which would codify current US laws banning torture, outlaws coercive interrogations and prohibits cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees. It has drawn bipartisan support even as the White House, insisting it does ''not do torture," has vowed that President Bush will veto the measure if it gains passage in both houses.
If that happens, Bush would be in the awkward position of using his first veto to kill a popular measure banning torture even as his own popularity is at an all-time low. More than 90 senators voted for it, and a recent ABC News/ Washington Post opinion poll indicated that a majority of the public surveyed said they disapprove of torturing enemy combatants and terror detainees, even though they think the government is doing it anyway.
But Bush's allies in Congress argue that the McCain amendment would undercut the president's authority as commander in chief. The White House also insists that publicly stating how detainees from abroad would be treated could restrict how the United States gets intelligence from its adversaries, and could set back the global war on terrorism. Vice President Dick Cheney has lobbied Congress to water down the bill, or at least exempt the CIA from its provisions.
McCain, a former POW who was tortured in North Vietnam for seven years, has emerged as the leader of a bipartisan movement to commit the United States to an anti-torture policy. McCain attached the measure to Senate versions of both the defense appropriations and defense authorization bills. In a speech last week at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, McCain said banning any US military use of using torture signals a ''clear and firm commitment on the part of the United States government that we will not only not torture, but we will not treat people in a cruel or inhumane fashion" when they are in US custody. Such a provision, he said, ''is absolutely vital" to distinguishing the United States from its ruthless enemies.
But in the House, both the GOP leadership and rank-and-file members seem to be digging in their heels for a tough battle.
Top Democrats said they plan to use committee rules to compel a special panel to take up the torture ban as part of a final defense spending bill. Representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and the ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he will make a motion that would force the committee to consider the McCain amendment.
GOP leaders, however, have not named the lawmakers who will sit on that special panel, known as a conference committee and intended to reconcile the two bodies' different bills. Until that panel is selected, the amendment remains stalled.
''I urge the Speaker to appoint House conferees to the defense appropriations bill immediately so that Congressman Murtha can offer his motion to instruct conferees, which would demonstrate the House's strong opposition to the torture of detainees," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California said yesterday.
House leaders argued that the measure is a threat to Bush's wartime authority. ''It's fair to say the White House has made the case to the leadership that they think the McCain amendment is harmful," the House majority whip, Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said last week.
Blunt conceded that enough members are willing to approve the amendment, but he hinted that this would not sway GOP leaders.
Nevertheless, Democrats are looking for support from their Republican colleagues who think the McCain amendment is a good idea.
Copyright 2005 Boston Globe