Anti-terrorism wiretapping bill, treatment of detainees accord up in air

WASHINGTON – President Bush’s embattled anti-terrorism plans got a boost yesterday when a wiretap bill was revised and a Senate Republican leader said he was hopeful a deal was near on treatment of detainees.

Prospects for the two critical pieces of legislation remained unclear; Congress is speeding toward a recess next week as Republicans fight to retain majority control in the midterm elections.

Nevertheless, a bill by Rep. Heather Wilson gained steam yesterday after she rewrote it to allow warrantless wiretapping when an attack is imminent, as Bush has demanded. Even so, she told reporters differences between the House and Senate versions were unlikely to be worked out before Congress reconvenes in a lame-duck session after the Nov. 7 elections.

Democrats sat on the sidelines “watching the catfights” among Republicans on terrorism surveillance and detainee legislation, said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He noted that Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was forced to postpone consideration of those bills this week; the Senate instead is holding a floor debate on border security “because they have nothing else to do.”

Neither the White House nor the rebellious Republican senators had the votes necessary to move forward on how to handle the nation’s most dangerous terror suspects. The two sides remained at odds over how to adhere to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and – simultaneously – give the CIA wide leeway to conduct interrogations.

In the House, there was more evidence that support was far from solid for the detainee bill approved overwhelmingly last week by the Armed Services Committee. A second panel, the Judiciary Committee, yesterday reported the same bill with an “unfavorable recommendation,” a procedural bump expected to be smoothed before the legislation reaches the House floor next week.

House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said he expected significant differences between any bills passed by the House and Senate.

“If the Senate and the White House have reached an agreement, that is probably what would end up becoming law and making its way to the president’s desk,” Hoekstra said at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Despite the stalemate, Frist sought to reassure the GOP troops that a deal still was possible.

“I am hopeful that very soon agreement can be reached with the president and with the majority of Republicans,” Frist said.