On Thursday night, the Senate voted down a Republican-backed amendment that would have completely banned federal criminal trials for terrorism suspects believed to be associated with al-Qaeda.
The 52-47 vote on New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte's amendment was largely along party lines. The Senate GOP's libertarianish contingent, represented by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted against the proposal, while Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted with the GOP. The vote is the latest blow to the problematic bipartisan "compromise" on domestic military detention reached earlier by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
That compromise measure would have made military detention the default option for terrorism suspects believed to be part of al-Qaeda but would have left open the option for federal trials as long as the Secretary of Defense gave explicit approval. As I wrote last week, the compromise detention provision—a rule that even former Bush administration officials criticized for limiting the president's options for dealing with terrorism suspects—would make it far less likely that someone like convicted underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab would be tried in federal court. (The now-defeated Ayotte amendment, of course, would have banned such trials outright.) Early this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), at the Obama administration's request, held up the entire defense authorization bill over the detention provisions.
"Senator Reid remains committed in working with Republicans, but he stands firm in his position on the detainee provisions," said a Senate Democratic aide, who added that Reid was hoping to reach a compromise on the detention issues "by the end of the year."
Chris Anders, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes both the amendment and the compromise provision, says Democrats should no longer feel obligated to compromise.
"It should be clear now that the bipartisan... detention 'deal' is a farce," Anders says. "It's like if I tell you that I won't run you over with my red truck if you give me a 1,000 dollars, then after you pay me, I go out and find a blue truck to try to run you over."