WASHINGTON – Putting new pressure on the Bush administration, the House on Wednesday endorsed a measure being pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to outlaw torture and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.
The measure, which divided Republicans, was largely symbolic but put the full House on record in support of new limits on U.S. treatment of captives and forced individual House members to take a stand on McCain’s closely watched drive to enshrine an explicit ban on torture in U.S. law. It passed the House on a 308-122 vote.
The vote came as McCain was in intense negotiations with the White House. The House vote applied new pressure on President Bush and his congressional allies to give in to McCain, who argues that leaving any loopholes in U.S. law endangers U.S. service members held captive by enemies.
“We’ve got to have a clear statement that the United States by law will not engage in cruel, inhuman treatment or torture,” McCain said Wednesday.
“You need to do that. You need to do that now because of our image in the world and all the alleged abuses that have taken place.”
McCain and the White House remain at loggerheads over the issue. McCain, himself a victim of torture after he was captured while serving as a Navy aviator during the Vietnam conflict, met in his office with Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, for an hour Wednesday.
The impasse has stalled work on two defense budget measures that must pass in coming days to ensure smooth financing for ongoing operations in Iraq.
Neither side reported progress in the talks.
“This is a very dynamic discussion and I imagine they will talk as necessary until they can reach an understanding,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Hadley.
“We’re still negotiating,” McCain said. “We have to reach agreement in the next day or two, one way or another.”
McCain has proposed an amendment to both defense bills that would prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of any person in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. It would also make the Army Field Manual, which explicitly upholds the Geneva Conventions, the standard for all U.S. interrogators, including the CIA.
The White House has opposed the amendment, arguing that existing laws already prohibit torture and that the legislation would unnecessarily tie the president’s hands in fighting terrorists. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials have also sought to provide immunity from prosecution for government interrogators, especially those from the CIA.
However, the measure was approved by a bipartisan vote of 90-9 when it faced a vote in October. McCain said he would not permit any changes to the amendment’s central provisions, including any exceptions for the CIA.
“We will not grant immunity. There will be no immunity for anyone,” he said.
“I can’t tell you if we will reach agreement or not but the pace of discussions is pretty intense.”
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