House Defies Bush and Backs McCain on Detainee Torture

New York Times

WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 – In an unusual bipartisan rebuke to the Bush administration, the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly endorsed Senator John McCain’s measure to bar cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners in American custody anywhere in the world.

Although the vote was nonbinding, it put the Republican-controlled House on record in support of Mr. McCain’s provision for the first time, at the very moment when the senator, a Republican, is at a crucial stage of tense negotiations with the White House, which strongly opposes his measure.

The vote also likely represents the lone opportunity that House members will have to express their sentiments on Mr. McCain’s legislation. The Senate approved the measure in October, 90 to 9, as part of a military spending bill. But until Wednesday, the House Republican leadership had sought to avoid a direct vote on the measure to avoid embarrassing the White House.

The vote was on a motion to instruct House negotiators, who had just been appointed to work out differences between the House and Senate spending bills, to accept the Senate position on the McCain amendment.

The House bill, providing $453 billion for military programs, has no provision like Mr. McCain’s, but if the negotiators follow these instructions to the letter, the final bill passed by Congress will.

The House vote was 308 to 122, with 107 Republicans lining up along with almost every Democrat behind Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who sponsored Mr. McCain’s language and who has become anathema to the administration on any legislative measure related to Iraq since his call last month to withdraw American troops from Iraq in six months.

“Torture does not help us win the hearts and minds of the people it’s used against,” Mr. Murtha said on the House floor. “Congress is obligated to speak out.”

Unlike the tumultuous three-hour debate that Mr. Murtha’s Iraq-related measure provoked last month, this measure met with just 10 minutes of statements to a nearly empty House chamber.

Mr. Murtha, a former Marine colonel who is the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said Mr. McCain’s legislation was essential to standardizing American interrogation methods and sending a clear signal to the world that the United States condemned the abusive treatment of detainees.

“If we allow torture in any form,” Mr. Murtha said, “we abandon our honor.”

Representative C. W. Bill Young of Florida, head of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, was one of 121 Republicans who voted against Mr. McCain’s language. One Democrat, Jim Marshall of Georgia, voted against it; 200 Democrats and one independent supported it.

Mr. Young was quick to point out that he was in no way endorsing torture as an interrogation technique, but said he opposed the measure because it wrongly bestowed the full protections of the Constitution to terrorists and tied the hands of Congressional negotiators.

Another Republican who voted against the measure, Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, said he opposed it because he said laws already barred torture and abusive treatment.

“It’s absolutely unnecessary,” said Mr. Tiahrt, who is on the House Intelligence Committee.

It was unclear what effects the vote would have on the negotiations between Mr. McCain and President Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, and on the Congressional negotiators for the two military bills now in conference committee. A spokeswoman for the Arizona senator, Eileen McMenamin, said Wednesday night that he had no comment on the vote.

“I don’t think it will have any effect on the negotiations,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Murtha said the vote bolstered his previous assertions that the military spending bill would include Mr. McCain’s provision after the conference committee completed its work.

“It’s going to be in there, period,” Mr. Murtha said after the vote.

Earlier in the day, Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who is the senior member of the Appropriations Committee, echoed Mr. Murtha’s prediction, telling reporters that Mr. McCain “wants it in there, and I think it will stay in there.”

The negotiations over provision intensified on Wednesday. Early in the morning, Mr. McCain met in his office with Mr. Hadley. When asked whether the two had narrowed their differences, Mr. McCain told reporters: “We’re still talking. We’ll get this resolved one way or another. We have the votes.”

Mr. McCain also attended the weekly Senate Republican policy lunch on Wednesday, but senators who attended the private gathering said that Mr. McCain did not address his colleagues and that the subject of his amendment did not come up.

After the lunch, however, Mr. McCain was mobbed by reporters seeking comment on his talks with Mr. Hadley. Mr. McCain was uncharacteristically tight lipped, saying he did not want to discuss details of the continuing discussions.

Two Senate Republican colleagues who voted for Mr. McCain’s measure in October said Wednesday it was important for Congress to back the language.

“We need to have clear guidance, in law, that makes it very clear that inhumane treatment of detainees in American captivity is absolutely unacceptable,” Susan Collins of Maine said. “This problem is hurting us around the world. It’s contrary to our values, and we simply must have this as part of the final bill.”

Senator John Thune of South Dakota said: “Because it has become such a high-profile issue here of late, not only around the country but around the world, I think it’s in our best interests to address it. A strong unequivocal statement that we don’t apply or tolerate torture in any form is probably right now a good thing to do.”

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