Folks outside the Beltway often wonder why reporters–even those of a liberal bent–have a fondness for John McCain. Yeah, he’s a warmonger in that he’s been an enthusiastic cheerleader for George Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. Yeah, he essentially pimped for Bush in 2004–after the Bush campaign ran a scandalous and dirty-as-can-be campaign against him in the 2000 Republican primaries. Yeah, he sucks up to social conservatives, as he ponders another presidential bid. For instance, he recently said intelligent design should be taught in schools. (McCain is probably hoping that he can take the edge off social conservatives’ suspicion of him.) But this week, he poked Bush right in the snout. Despite a veto threat from the White House, McCain led–yes, led–the Senate to a 90-to-9 vote in favor of setting humane limits on the interrogation of detainees in Iraq and elsewhere. Given the damage done by the Abu Ghraib scandal, it’s shocking that Bush would not support such a measure. But he didn’t. And McCain shoved it down his throat.
McCain attached to the $440 billion military spending bill a provision that both defines the permissible actions that can be taken by US interrogators–whether they are dealing with uniiformed members of an enemy army or stateless terrorists–and prohibits the use of inhumane and degrading tactics. For months, McCain and a few other senators (including Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia) have pushed this measure, but they have been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. In July, Frist pulled the defense appropriations bill off the floor rather than permit McCain a vote on this provision. Instead, he scheduled a vote on legislation that would protect gun sellers from lawsuits. (Click here for more on that.)
But when McCain on Wednesday introduced this provision as an amendment to the military spending bill–which is considered as a must-pass bill–he and his comrades won over most of their fellow Republicans. Only one Republican–Ted Stevens of Alaska–spoke against the provision. Even at a time when Bush’s supposed political capital is draining faster than the waters of Lake Pontchartrain pouring through a busted levee, this was quite an accomplishment for McCain. It was a major rejection of Bush’s claim that he knows best how to be commander in chief. During the Senate debate–such as it was–Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee spoke eloquently of how the US Constitution assigns the task of creating rules for the capture of enemies to Congress, not the president. Finally, Congress–that is, the Senate (who knows if the House GOPers will follow its lead?)–has reasserted (for the moment) its standing as a coequal branch of government when it comes to fighting a war. This was McCain’s doing.
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And this is why McCain tugs on the heartstrings of reporters stuck in Washington. He does occasionally go off the reservation for a principle. Not often enough, but more so than most of his fellow Republicans. After getting ensnared in the Keating Five money-and-politics scandal years ago, he took up the cause of campaign finance reform. (His McCain-Feingold bill was a mixed bag at best, but it was a try.) He tried to shout down Bush’s call for tax cuts that would benefit the rich and increase the deficit (but failed). He went after Big Tobacco, one of the main sources of campaign dollars for his party. In recent years, he has worked with Senator Joe Lieberman on global warming legislation.
McCain’s anti-Abu Ghraib measure could still be stripped out of the spending bill. Consequently, he has called for public pressure that might persuade House GOP leaders not to undermine this provision and that might make it tough for Bush to veto the measure. So his campaign to bring a dollop of honor to the United States’ treatment of its enemies has not yet triumphed. But even if McCain’s effort is undone by other Republicans and/or the White House, at least he has shown that when it comes to this issue of decency, Bush is far outside the mainstream.