At first glance, the high-profile Senate Republican and the behind-the-scenes House Democrat leading the charge to ban abusive treatment of foreign prisoners in U.S. custody look like an odd couple.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., have more in common than their willingness to challenge the White House on the issue.
They are national security authorities, and both voted to support the use of force against Iraq. Both are Vietnam veterans — McCain was a naval aviator who was shot down and captured, while Murtha was a Marine intelligence officer.
“The experience of Vietnam has probably made both of them concerned about this,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
The war decades ago, Madonna said, tends to be “seared into the heads” of those who fought in it. Indeed, Vietnam service has shaped the careers of both McCain and Murtha and given them enormous credibility on military matters.
On this issue, the two dismiss any appearance of being strange bedfellows.
“We’ve been friends for many years. He’s a former Marine. Doesn’t surprise me at all,” McCain says. Underscoring the respect he has for Murtha, McCain adds after a pause, “You know, he’s been in combat.”
It’s a respect that’s clearly mutual.
Murtha calls McCain “a great American,” and says there’s no one more credible on the issues of detention and interrogation than a man who was tortured while held captive in Vietnam for 5 1/2 years.
“He knows this firsthand,” says Murtha, himself a decorated veteran. “We see eye to eye on this.”
So when McCain made the case last month that the United States’ current anti-torture laws weren’t sufficient, 89 other senators listened. They voted with him to prohibit cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of foreign prisoners in U.S. custody and standardize interrogation procedures for U.S. troops.
Even before that vote, Murtha threw his support behind McCain. The congressman, who typically operates under the radar, has been vocal in trying to force the House to decide whether to endorse McCain’s proposal. The effort is expected to succeed, in part because of Murtha’s influence.
McCain and Murtha say they are driven by a desire to repair a U.S. image tarnished by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq and allegations of mistreatment of terror-war detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
They also are mindful of those whose shoes they once were in, saying U.S. troops need clear guidelines for detaining and interrogating prisoners, in part to avoid behavior that might invite mistreatment of captured Americans.
Both also could have other motivations in bucking the White House, which has threatened to veto any bill that includes the provisions.
Long a maverick in the Republican Party, McCain may be positioning himself for a second run at the presidency in 2008 by distancing himself even further from Bush. The president’s popularity has tumbled in part because of public skepticism of the Iraq war.
Unlike McCain, Murtha has never been seen as overtly political, choosing instead the role of a quiet adviser to administrations on defense issues. Above all, he’s known as an ally of uniformed leaders, so much so that the Capitol Hill perception is that when Murtha speaks on military issues he’s talking for those commanders.
Personally, Murtha might simply have had enough.
“They’ve broken their trust with me,” he said recently of the Bush administration, his face flushing, after learning of purportedly secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.
Elected to Congress in 1974, Murtha long wielded leverage because he controlled the Pentagon purse strings as chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee. He lost that chairmanship when Republicans took control of the House, but he still carries clout as top Democrat on the panel.
McCain was elected to his Senate seat in 1986 and is No. 2 on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in line to take it over in 2007. That could make for much political theater given the senator’s clashes with civilian leaders at the Pentagon, most recently over contracting abuses.
The latest conflict is the detainee language, and the White House has waged a fierce fight against it. But in a sign of possible movement, McCain has been in daily negotiations with administration officials, including Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.
Despite the similarities between McCain and Murtha, their differences are vast.
Murtha is an imposing but quiet presence during House votes, holding court in a corner of the chamber. Well over 6 feet tall, he remains anonymous to most Capitol visitors.
With a smaller stature but a much larger national profile, McCain gets his hands into just about every issue of the day. The political celebrity often stops to talk to ever-present throngs of reporters and pose for pictures with schoolchildren.
Perhaps one thing separates McCain and Murtha most.
“For McCain, it’s always the question of how much this goes back to the politics,” Madonna said. “For Murtha, that’s just not true.”