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Senate Rebellion Breaks Out Against White House

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

With just weeks before midterm elections, President Bush faces a rebellion from senators in his own party. The Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday defied the White House when four leading Republicans joined Democrats to pass a bill creating military courts for suspected terrorists. It's sharply at odds with legislation proposed by the Bush administration.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee voted 52-8 for a bill that closely resembles what President Bush wants for legislation creating military commissions. The president tried to keep that momentum going yesterday morning, meeting at the Capitol with House Republicans.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I reminded them that the most important job of government is to protect the homeland. And yesterday they advanced an important piece of legislation to do just that. I'll continue to work with members of the Congress so - to get good legislation so we can do our duty.

WELNA: But while the president played lobbyist-in-chief, the Senate Armed Services Committee was meeting behind closed doors. It too was to vote on military commissions legislation, but its bill was not backed by the White House. Instead, it was drafted by some of the Senate's most prominent Republicans: John Warner, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. All three are military veterans who worry that the White House's proposal would give cover to other nations to try Americans military personnel in kangaroo courts.

But the committee's meeting was suspended only an hour after it started. McCain said an obscure Senate rule had been invoked to stop the meeting, but just who did it was not clear.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): That one, of course, is unnamed.

WELNA: Texas Republican John Cornyn, a close White House ally on the committee, denied having shut down the meeting, but he added he was not at all dismayed.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I think we need to take some care and not be trying to rush a fix through that doesn't address the problem in terms of what the court needs or wants to see in a military or terrorist tribunal or in a way that impairs our ability to gather intelligence.

WELNA: But critics of the president's approach were getting a boost; a bombshell letter to McCain from former Secretary of State Colin Powell was making the rounds. Powell wrote that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” He added that a White House push to redefine prisoner protections under the Geneva Conventions would add to those doubts and put U.S. troops at risk.

Back at the White House, President Bush was in a testier mood. He repeated his contention that the Senate committee's bill could impede the CIA from getting information from high-value detainees.

President BUSH: So the question I ask to - about any piece of legislation is: Will the program provide legal clarity so that our professionals will feel comfortable about going forward with the program? That's what I'm going to ask. And I will resist any bill that does not enable this program to go forward legal clarity.

WELNA: But by then, the bill the president opposes was no longer bottled up. Senate Armed Services Chair John Warner had insisted on resuming his panel's suspended meeting.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): Yeah, I went to the floor and got unanimous consent, and we're back in business. We'll start at 2:15.

WELNA: Warner reminded his colleagues that legislation on military commissions was required because the Supreme Court in June found the military tribunals the Bush administration created were unconstitutional.

Sen. WARNER: It would be a very serious blow to the credibility of the United States not only in the international community but here at home if legislation that was prepared by the Congress and signed by the president failed to meet a second Supreme Court review.

WELNA: Not one of the White House's Republican allies on the panel tried to amend Warner's bill. But South Dakota's John Thune did suggest Colin Powell might have actually been endorsing the idea of redefining the Geneva Convention's rules. McCain replied he was quite certain what Colin Powell meant.

Sen. MCCAIN: General Powell's intentions are clear. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to these doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.

WELNA: And then McCain defied President Bush by joining fellow Republicans Warner and Graham, as well as Maine's Susan Collins and all the Democrats, to pass the committees bill 15-9. Further action's expected next week on the Senate floor.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.