Congress is nearing agreement with the White House on a Senate-passed ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of foreign terrorism suspects. "We are mere millimeters from the finish line," a senior Senate Republican aide said late Wednesday, requesting anonymity because of the delicate nature of negotiations.
Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, sponsored the ban and another provision that would standardize interrogation techniques used by U.S. troops. He says they are needed to clarify current anti-torture laws in light of abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
The Republican-controlled House voted earlier Wednesday to urge congressional negotiators to include the ban in a final $453 billion (Ђ377 billion) military spending bill. The 308-122 procedural vote was symbolic, simply putting the House on record backing the two provisions.
Nevertheless, such a mandate, 107 Republicans joined 200 Democrats and one independent in supporting McCain, puts political pressure on House negotiators to accept the provisions overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in October.
"The House and Senate have now spoken loud and clear, with a single message, the United States will not permit cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The only way this standard could fail to pass the Congress now is through closed-door negotiations that defy the will of the majority of members of the House," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First.
The House vote followed a morning meeting on Capitol Hill between McCain and President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, in which the two sides failed to reach a compromise that would satisfy administration concerns.
In an up-and-down day of negotiations, key members of the House and Senate also worked toward an agreement on a bill setting Pentagon policy that, like the spending measure, includes McCain's provisions. "We're still talking," McCain said Wednesday afternoon. "We'll get this resolved one way or another."
But progress on any compromise was thrown into question just hours later when the House took up the nonbinding motion by Congressman John Murtha. "There can be no waiver to the use for torture. No torture and no exceptions," said Murtha, the senior Democrat on the House appropriations defense panel.
For his part, Republican Congressman Bill Young, the panel's chairman, said it's "important that we make it very clear that we are opposed to torture, period." However, he said he was offended because the provisions would give terrorists protections they should not be afforded. House Republican leaders had delayed appointing negotiators for the defense spending bill in part to avoid a House vote on the McCain provisions. Leaders had been waiting for the result of negotiations between the White House and McCain, reports the AP. N.U.