WASHINGTON - President Bush urged the Senate on Thursday to follow the House lead and approve a White House plan for detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects, saying, "The American people need to know we're working together to win the war on terror."
Bush met in the Capitol with Senate Republicans the day after the House passed the legislation that Republicans likely will use on the campaign trail to assert that Democrats want to go too easy on terrorists.
"People shouldn't forget there's still an enemy out there that wants to do harm to the United States," Bush told reporters after the closed-door meeting.
Barring any last-minute hiccups, a Senate vote Thursday would send the legislation to the president's desk by week's end. The House approved a nearly identical measure Wednesday on a 253-168 vote.
Standing with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both Republicans, Bush spoke briefly and took no questions.
He said the House-passed legislation "will give us the capacity to interrogate high-value detainees and at the same time give us the capacity to try people in our military tribunals."
"I urged them to get this legislation to my desk as soon as possible," Bush said. He said discussion of the legislation occupied "much of my discussion" with the majority-party Republicans.
Senate Republicans agreed on the measure with the exception of whether to allow terrorists the right to protest their detentions in court. Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record), R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, contends the ability to file a "habeas corpus" petition is considered a fundamental legal right and necessary to uncover abuse.
Other Republicans contend that providing terror suspects the right to unlimited appeals would weigh down the federal court system.
Four Democrats and Specter were being given opportunities to offer amendments Thursday, but all were expected to be rejected along party lines.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told CBS' "The Early Show" that he expected the bill would be approved Thursday to ensure continued interrogation of high-level terrorism suspects — "maybe the most important program we have" — and avoid the risk of classified information being divulged at terrorism trials.
Democrats have said the legislation would give the president too much latitude when deciding whether aggressive interrogations cross the line and violate international standards of prisoner treatment.
The legislation would establish a military court system to prosecute terror suspects, a response to the Supreme Court ruling in June that Congress' blessing was necessary. While the bill would grant defendants more legal rights than they had under the administration's old system, it nevertheless would not include rights usually granted in civilian and military courts.
The measure also provides extensive definitions of war crimes such as torture, rape and biological experiments, but gives the president broad authority to decide which other techniques U.S. interrogators may use legally. The provisions are intended to protect CIA interrogators from being prosecuted for war crimes.
For nearly two weeks the White House and rebellious Republican senators have fought publicly over whether Bush's plan would give a president too much authority. But they struck a compromise last Thursday.
After Wednesday's mostly party-line vote in the Republican-run House, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in a statement that Democrats who voted against the measure "voted today in favor of more rights for terrorists."
He added, "So the same terrorists who plan to harm innocent Americans and their freedom worldwide would be coddled, if we followed the Democrat plan."
In response, Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats feared the House-passed measure could endanger U.S. soldiers by encouraging other countries to limit the rights of captured American troops, and be vulnerable to being overturned by the Supreme Court.
"Speaker Hastert's false and inflammatory rhetoric is yet another desperate attempt to mislead the American people and provoke fear," she said, adding that Democrats "have an unshakable commitment to catching, convicting and punishing terrorists who attack Americans."
Pelosi and other Democrats said the bill would give the president too much power to decide whether interrogation standards go too far.
Rep.Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said, "This bill is everything we don't believe in."
Overall in the House, 219 Republicans and 34 Democrats voted for the legislation, while 160 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent voted against it.
The House resolution is HR 6166. The Senate bill is S 3930.