WASHINGTON -- The Senate defied the White House yesterday by voting to set new limits on interrogating detainees in Iraq and elsewhere, underscoring Congress's growing concerns about reports of abuse of suspected terrorists and others in military custody.
Forty-six Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one Independent in voting to define and limit interrogation techniques that US troops may use against terrorism suspects, the latest sign that alarm over treatment of prisoners in the Middle East and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is widespread in both parties. The White House had fought to prevent the restrictions, with Vice President Dick Cheney visiting key Republicans in July and a spokesman yesterday repeating President Bush's threat to veto the larger bill that the language is now attached to -- a $440 billion military spending measure.
Senate GOP leaders had fended off the detainee language this summer, saying the Congress should not constrain the executive branch's options. But last night, 89 senators sided with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who led the fight for the restrictions. McCain said military officers have implored Congress for guidelines, adding that he mourns ''what we lose when by official policy or by official negligence we allow, confuse, or encourage our soldiers to forget that which is our greatest strength: that we are different and better than our enemies."
The vote came hours after Senate Democratic leaders blasted Republicans for canceling a classified briefing on antiterrorism matters by the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte. Senate Democrats also sent Bush a letter demanding more information about how he intends to succeed in Iraq.
The president, who defended his Iraq policies at a news conference Tuesday, plans to deliver ''a significant speech on the war on terrorism" today, spokesman Scott McClellan said. He said Bush will ''talk in unprecedented detail about the nature of the enemy we face" and ''about our comprehensive strategy for defeating" that enemy.
The Senate's 90-to-9 vote suggested a new boldness among Republicans to challenge the White House on war policy. The amendment by McCain would establish uniform standards for interrogating people detained by US military personnel, prohibiting ''cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment.
McCain's allies included Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and former military lawyer, and Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, Republican of Virginia. They said new standards are needed to clear up confusion among US troops that may have led to the mistreatment alleged at the Navy's Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The military came under condemnation throughout the world two years ago upon the release of photos showing US troops humiliating and terrifying inmates at Abu Ghraib. Some low-ranking soldiers have been sentenced to prison for the abuse, but many lawmakers and others said they continue to worry about tactics that border on torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.
In his closing speech, McCain said terrorists ''hold in contempt" international conventions ''such as the Geneva Conventions and the treaty on torture."
''I know that," he said. ''But we're better than them, and we are the stronger for our faith."
In its statement on the veto threat, the White House said the measure would ''restrict the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bringing terrorists to justice."
But as new allegations of abuse surface, the number of McCain supporters appears to be growing. McCain read a letter on the Senate floor from former secretary of state Colin Powell, who endorsed the amendment and said it would help address ''the terrible public diplomacy crisis created by Abu Ghraib." Powell joins a growing group of retired generals and admirals who attribute prison abuse to ''ambiguous instruction," as the officers wrote in a recent letter. They urged restricting interrogation methods to those outlined in the US Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.
Despite his victory last night, McCain has two major obstacles remaining: House GOP leaders object to attaching it to a spending bill, and Bush could veto it. But senior GOP Senate aides said they think the differences could be bridged by tweaking the measure.