The return of the Gang of 14

Tim Chapman
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Posted: Sep 22, 2006 12:00 AM
The return of the Gang of 14

The much vaunted Senate “Gang of 14” gained notoriety earlier this year when they combined forces to prevent the Senate from changing its rules. The Gang, a group of seven moderate Republicans and seven moderate Democrats, succeeded in thwarting the GOP leadership’s attempt to do away with the filibuster of judicial nominees.

The proposed rules change followed frequent Democratic filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees, and it was backed by most Senate Republicans as well as outside activists who had grown weary of Democratic obstruction. Consequently, the Gang’s successful stand enraged the Republican base and drew ire from different-minded Senate colleagues who saw the Gang’s efforts as showboating at the expense of a majority of their caucus.

However, the Gang became media darlings. Countless editorials praised their “moderation,” “sensibility” and “reverence for tradition.” Clearly the liberal media saw the Gang’s actions as a blow to conservatives who want to confirm judges dedicated to interpreting the constitution (in the mold of Scalia and Thomas).

To date, the Gang’s stand has turned out better than expected for those conservatives, though. The high court is now presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts and he has a new associate, Samuel Alito, while the Senate has been able to approve a raft of President Bush’s lower level nominees.

But now, the Gang -- especially the seven Republican members -- are making a high profile return to the spotlight, and this time the outcome could be much different.

Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Warner, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Gordon Smith and Lincoln Chafee -- all original members of the Gang -- have been joined by John Sununu, Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar to oppose the President on another high profile administration priority.

The President wants Congress to approve legislation drafted in the wake of the Hamdan Supreme Court decision (which required congressional sanctioning of the President’s military commissions program). The administration and the “Gang plus three” disagree over whether terrorists tried in military commissions should have access to the classified material used to prosecute them. The administration refuses to share this classified information with terrorists and their lawyers, as it could threaten national security. The Gang plus three insists it undermines the trial not to share it.

Also at issue is the application of the Geneva Conventions. The President argues that American professionals tasked with interrogating terrorists need clarification about the overly broad Geneva Conventions in order to extract information that could help avert attacks on the homeland. The tactics used to extract this information, argues the president, must be validated by Congress or else interrogators will not be able to move forward with interrogations that, according to a new ABC news report, have already helped avert as many as 12 terrorist attacks against the United States.

The Gang plus three says no. McCain, in a statement on his Website, made clear that he thinks the president’s approach “weakens” the Geneva Conventions while setting “an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights, that they could issue their own legislative ‘reinterpretations.’”

But McCain’s approach assumes our enemy has even some remote standard of moral decency and respect for the Geneva Conventions. Surely an enemy that routinely kills innocents while beheading kidnapped victims on camera cares nothing for such notions. That does not mean that America should also disregard the Geneva Conventions; the administration is not arguing for that.

In a press conference this week Bush laid it out. “I am asking Congress to pass a clear law with clear guidelines,” he said. He added he only has one test as far as the legislation was concerned: The intelligence community must confirm that whatever Congress passes will allow the current administration program (the one that has thwarted attacks) to continue. If Congress passes a law to the contrary -- similar to the one supported by the Gang plus three -- Bush says the program will be discontinued.

That would be an outcome far different than the one resulting from the Gang’s first foray onto the national stage.