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Detainee Treatment Tops US Congress's Pre-Holiday Agenda

Congressional lawmakers face several days of hard work and tough negotiations as they try to enact key legislation before the end of the year. One major issue involves the question of treatment of terrorist suspects detained in the war on terrorism,

Normally by this point in December, the House and the Senate have adjourned after dealing with last-minute legislation, in particular the dozen or so spending bills required to keep government programs going.

This year, however, lawmakers have some big legislative hurdles to overcome, contained in seven priority bills, with high political stakes for Republicans and Democrats.

On two closely-linked domestic issues, Republicans in control of Congress hope to be able to send bills to reduce the federal budget, and extend tax cuts to President Bush's desk.

Budget legislation, on which House and Senate-passed bills differ by about 15-billion dollars, has implications for Republican budget conservatives ahead of next year's mid-term congressional elections, who have been outspoken on restraining government spending.

Attached to tax and budget bills are other highly-sensitive issues, including concerns of Democrats and moderate Republicans about cutting funding for key social programs, and the long-running red hot political debate over allowing oil exploration in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge.

Some of the sharpest debate is expected as lawmakers seek to overcome differences blocking passage of bills authorizing and appropriating billions of dollars for defense.

Negotiations have taken place involving House and Senate lawmakers and the White House over a provision by Republican Senator John McCain to prohibit "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment of detainees by anyone in the U.S. military or government.

Senator McCain has insisted he would not accept changes, but has been talking with the White House.

Appearing Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said failure to reach a compromise on standardizing interrogation policies would damage the U.S. ability to carry out the war on terrorism. "Our interrogation policy, interpretations of interrogation policy, has been confusing, misleading, and our own troops have suffered because they don't know what is in bounds and what is not. So, the McCain language attempts to put it all in one spot so they will understand what they can and can't do," he said.

Critics disapprove of an amendment Senator Graham has proposed that would narrow the right of detainees to habeas corpus to appeal their detentions in a U.S. court.

President Bush stated recently that the United States does not torture detainees, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued clarifications about U.S. principles on the issue.

Debate over treatment of detainees and legal protections continued at a panel discussion Monday at Washington's Brookings Institution.

There, a former White House Associate Counsel Brad Berenson supported the Bush administration's position that the war on terrorism created the need for a new legal framework regarding detainees. "War calls forth an entirely different legal framework than we are accustomed to in situations that do not involve war. To make it obvious, when you are at war and you have a suspected adversary across from you are entitled to kill that person with no due process or advance warning whatsoever, indeed it is your obligation to do that," said Mr. Berenson.

Attorney Tom Wilner, who represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said detainee policies had damaged U.S. interests. "The results of this decision to not abide by the basic minimal laws of war, a hearing and humane treatment, are that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have become synonymous with the U.S. war on terror. And those are about the worst possible images that we could use for the war on terror. Those are the best possible images that al-Qaida could have ever come up with to assign to the United States in the war on terror," he said.

There is also potential trouble on the horizon on another key piece of legislation, renewal of 16 provisions of the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act.

A main agenda priority for President Bush, a House-Senate compromise agreement on the bill comes up for a vote in the House, but faces a possible filibuster by Senate Democrats, and opposition from some Senate Republicans.

Meanwhile, the House is also preparing for what is expected to be an emotional debate and vote on a border security and immigration bill, setting the stage for what President Bush hopes will be action by the full Congress next year on another of his priorities, immigration reform.