House passes bill to give Bush administration power to prosecute detainees

WASHINGTON – The House approved legislation Wednesday giving the Bush administration authority to interrogate and prosecute detainees, moving President Bush to the edge of a pre-election victory with a key cog of his anti-terror plan.

The mostly party-line 253-168 vote in the Republican-run House prompted bitter charges afterward by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., that opposition Democrats were coddling terrorists, perhaps foreshadowing campaign attack ads to come during the mid-terms. Even as the House debated the bill, senators of the two parties agreed to limit debate on their own nearly identical measure, all but ensuring its passage on the Senate floor Thursday.

Republicans are hoping to hammer out disputes and send Bush a final copy before leaving Washington this weekend to campaign for the Nov. 7 congressional elections.

The legislation would establish a military court system to prosecute terror suspects, a response to the Supreme Court ruling in June that Congress’ blessing was necessary. While the bill would grant defendants more legal rights than they had under the administration’s old system, it nevertheless would eliminate rights usually granted in civilian and military courts.

The measure also provides extensive definitions of war crimes such as torture, rape and biological experiments _ but gives Bush broad authority to decide which other techniques U.S. interrogators can legally use. The provisions are intended to protect CIA interrogators from being prosecuted.

For nearly two weeks, the GOP has been embarrassed as the White House and rebellious Republican senators have fought publicly over whether Bush’s plan would give him too much power. But they struck an accord last Thursday, and Republicans are hoping approval will bolster their effort to cast themselves as strong on security, a marquee issue this election year.

In a statement issued after the vote, Bush, who will visit GOP senators Thursday morning, urged the Senate to approve the measure and congratulated the House for its “commitment to strengthening our national security.”

Hastert’s comments were biting. He said in a statement that Democrats supporting the measure “voted today in favor of MORE rights for terrorists.”

He added, “…the same terrorists who plan to harm innocent Americans and their freedom worldwide would be coddled, if we followed their plan.”

In response, Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats feared the House-passed measure could endanger U.S. soldiers by encouraging other countries to limit the rights of captured American troops. She said the bill would be vulnerable to being overturned by the Supreme Court.

“Speaker Hastert’s false and inflammatory rhetoric is yet another desperate attempt to mislead the American people and provoke fear,” she said.

During the debate, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, all but dared Democrats to vote against the legislation.

“Will my Democrat friends work with Republicans to give the president the tools he needs to continue to stop terrorist attacks before they happen, or will they vote to force him to fight the terrorists with one arm tied behind his back?” Boehner asked before the ballots were cast.

Democrats said they wanted to tone down the powers the bill would give to Bush and protect captive terror suspects’ rights. Said Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio: “This bill is everything we don’t believe in.”