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August 15, 2006

What Bin Laden's chauffeur means to the elections

Posted by David Postman at 8:47 AM

Senate Majority Bill Frist is hoping Salim Ahmed Hamdan can boost Republican chances in the mid-term elections.

Hamdan is one of Osama Bin Laden's former drivers. He is being held at Guantanamo and has his name attached to a June Supreme Court decision
that said the military tribunal system the U.S. wanted to use to try Hamdan and others is illegal.

Frist said in Seattle yesterday that he will use a chunk of the few remaining days of this year's session to debate a bill for new special military courts to replace the trials stopped by the Supreme Court. The Bush administration has asked Congress "to expand the reach and authority of such 'commissions' to include trials, for the first time, of people who are not members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban and are not directly involved in acts of international terrorism ... ."

Frist told me that the debate over how to handle Guantanamo detainees will be a surrogate for the larger question about national security. He said that's what he tried to do with the June debates on Democratic troop withdrawal resolutions. He's pleased with the "global picture" that emerged: "They're waving the white flag and we're going to fight the war on terror."

Hamdan, he said, will provide another opportunity to drive home that message. He said Democrats just want to talk about Iraq, while Republicans want to broaden the national security debate to the larger "war against radical Islam and the extremists." The June debates on troop withdrawal were focused on Iraq, but Frist said that he thinks Republicans did a good job stressing "the larger philosophical" differences.

When Congress debates military trials for terror suspects, he said, "That will come right back. And I think that's important for voters to see."

"You don't want to make it a partisan issue, but who cares about preserving homeland security and the safety and the security of the American family? And when it comes down to it, our leadership has been more aggressive more pre-emptive , more focused and theirs has been a defeatist, a fatalistic, a more timid, approach."

Frist said that he "didn't plan specifically" for the Hamdan debate to be the finale for his year's session. He said he waited until Senate Republicans worked out a legislative proposal to set the debate and "it does happen to be the last week before we get out."

Frist was here yesterday to raise money for Mike McGavick. As I wrote in the paper today, McGavick was not as enamored as Frist with the Senate debate on troop withdrawal.

Frist said at a press conference with McGavick that the debate came down to Republicans saying ''We're going to continue to adjust with time but we're going to address the challenges that we have overseas'' and Democrats disagreeing about "whether to cut and run now, or six months from now or a year from now."

McGavick, though, said he had a different take as he watched the debate:

"It struck me as one of these partisan squabbles without much meaning because in the end, the Levin amendment doesn't cause anything to happen. It just expresses what I think is the heartfelt feeling of everyone that we'd like our troops home sooner rather than later.

(...)

"I know the Republicans thought they had to make a case for supporting the president and the Democrats to show distance, but when I look at the content of the resolution I just think it was another chance to throw bricks at each other as far as I was concerned."

Frist told me that the disagreement comes from McGavick's literal reading of the troop withdrawal resolutions, while senators were focused on the bigger message.

"He gets right down to the wording of the resolution. To be honest with you, the people who go out to the floor and speak about it, no one even talks about the wording of the resolution."

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