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Road Map: Torture Controversy Silencing Everything Else

So much for looking forward.

Instead of talking up their grand plans for changing the direction of the country and moving past the partisan bitterness, Congressional Democrats can’t seem to get out of this debate over the harsh interrogations of terror suspects during President George W. Bush’s first term.

[IMGCAP(1)]From questions about what Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) knew about the interrogation practices and how to transfer or prosecute detainees once the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison is shuttered, to whether more photos of alleged detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq should be released, Democrats are having a hard time breaking through with their ambitious legislative agenda.

“It’s drowning out our message,— one senior House Democratic aide said. “We are about to conclude a really productive work period, but torture is all you hear about.—

Case in point: During the media frenzy over Pelosi’s latest explanation of what the CIA told her about the waterboarding of detainees, reporters on Thursday laughed at one of their own when he asked the Speaker about a massive, controversial rewrite of health care policy — which just happens to be the Democrats’ top priority this year.

“Did you get booed?— Pelosi asked the lone journalist who tried to change the subject.

Her answer to the question — “Do House Democrats have the political will to raise taxes to reform health care?— — got virtually no coverage, despite her remarkable affirmation that tax increases are possible.

The issue shows no sign of ebbing yet, given the Senate is set to take up its $91.3 billion supplemental war spending bill this week that includes $80 million for closing Guantánamo, despite the absence of a White House plan on what to do with the detainees — who may or may not have been tortured — and a Republican drumbeat on the dangers of bringing them to the United States.

“It’s the topic because there’s a feeding frenzy around the Speaker, and we do have to find a way forward on Guantánamo,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. But the aide added, “I think there’s a way to make lemonade out of lemons here.—

Indeed, Democrats view the hubbub as a mixed bag. On the one hand, President Barack Obama and Pelosi continue to keep these issues in the news. Obama has done that by releasing the Bush-era memos authorizing torture, then reversing himself on the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures and recommitting the United States to trying terrorists through military commissions.

And instead of trying to dampen enthusiasm in the press for the story, Pelosi upped the ante on Thursday by accusing the CIA of lying to Congress about the interrogation methods.

Still, the president and the Speaker have sought, at times, to raise the debate to a higher level on whether the U.S. should be in the business of using interrogation methods that much of the international community considers torture.

And Democrats said the issue only reminds the American public why they chose Democrats over Republicans in the 2008 elections.

“A lot depends on how aggressively Republicans want to push this,— another senior House Democratic aide said. “It’s really difficult to see what they gain from a long-term standpoint. It keeps [former Vice President] Dick Cheney in the news and on television, and it keeps this debate about torture front and center.—

In fact, Democrats see a split in GOP maneuvering on the issue, with some Republicans trying to score short-term gain and knock Pelosi down a few pegs, as others warily eye the long-term drawbacks of re-litigating the Bush years.

That divide was evident on the Sunday talk shows, when House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for Pelosi either to prove her claim of CIA deceit or apologize to the intelligence community, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there was no point in “going back and trying to figure out who knew what when.—

But the second House aide said the Pelosi-interrogation cloud could lift by the middle of the week, perhaps with an assist from the White House. “The president in particular does a very good job of focusing the attention on news he wants to make.—

Indeed, Congressional Democrats are looking to Obama to save them from themselves. In the short term, some are hoping that a reprieve could come when the president names a replacement in the next week or so for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

Still, Democrats said the president needs to drive the conversation on torture more forcefully — particularly when it comes to Guantánamo.

While Senate Democrats are prepared to get hammered this week on the lack of a plan for the prison’s closure, they hope that issue will be moot when the topic resurfaces during debate on the Defense Department reauthorization bill and regular DOD appropriations.

“I would hope that by the time we do this again, the White House has its act together and has a plan for us to follow,— said one well-placed Senate Democratic aide.

In the meantime, Democrats say they are doing their best to play defense.

On Guantánamo this week, Senate Democrats hope to refocus the debate on the Republicans’ failed national security strategies, including on the military prison.

“They put these people in Guantánamo without any plan for how to deal with them and dropped it in Democrats’ laps,— said the well-placed Democratic aide. “They have the nerve to sit here and challenge President Obama and Democrats in Congress on our national security initiatives?—

As for Pelosi’s troubles, Democrats have finally begun to rally to her side.

“Believe me when I say this: Nancy Pelosi is not in any trouble,— Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the No. 4-ranking House Democrat, said Monday on MSNBC. “The wagons are circling more around the Speaker during this time. When you’re attacked in the Beltway by Dick Cheney, New Gingrich and Karl Rove, that says it all. The American people get that.—

And Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami dismissed the controversy over what Pelosi knew, and when, as “cable fodder— that Democrats would have no problem breaking through by touting legislative accomplishments.

“This week we could have as many as four bills going to the president for his signature,— he said, pointing to bills addressing housing and consumer protections. “In terms of our Members having issues to talk about, they’re there, and they’ll have the opportunity to do just that.—

Of course, that scenario presumes that reporters will dare ask the question about that.

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