A tug of war has broken out between Congress and the Bush administration over legislation that would put private security contractors on a shorter legal leash.
The White House and Justice Department are trying to limit the reach of U.S. criminal law on Blackwater and other private war contractors. With a potential veto threat looming, several senators now want to alter the bill in a way that satisfies both the Bush administration and members of the House of Representatives, who overwhelmingly passed similar legislation last month.
Negotiators are continuing to work out the proposed bill's language in the hopes of introducing it before the week is out.
In the House, staff members with knowledge of discussions surrounding H.R. 2740, the MEJA Expansion and Enforcement Act, said that while they were "encouraged" about the progress of the negotiations in the Senate, there were certain lines that could not be crossed.
"Whatever final form the bill takes, it needs to cover all contractors and the government needs to have resources in place for the investigation of all allegations of abuse," one aide told the Huffington Post. "That's the litmus test."
The Senate legislation, introduced by Barack Obama (D-IL), has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, where staff for chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have been negotiating elements of the bill to reach consensus with the White House.
Senate aides say a key sticking point has been White House objection to the particular geographic locations in which contractors' activities would fall under U.S. civilian criminal law. An administration statement said it "strongly opposes" the House bill because "the jurisdictional scope of criminal prohibitions would depend on vague notions of 'proximity' to potentially poorly defined regions, making unclear the circumstances when those who assist the United States government would be subject to the bill's criminal sanctions and raising significant Due Process concerns."
But while the Bush administration is fighting the House formula for prosecuting private war contractors, it is not clear that its opposition will make any difference. The House bill passed by a veto-proof majority, with one Republican aide saying it was difficult to vote against a bill regulating contractors after the September incident in which Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
"We knew it would pass, but there were a whole host of members who wanted to vote against it, and politically, it was not the best thing to do because of Blackwater," the aide said. "We haven't heard a peep from them [about blocking the bill] on the Senate side."
And a Senate staff member told the Huffington Post that the contractors themselves would not seek to block the legislation.
"The contractors are not going to come out and oppose the bill," the aide explained. "They'd rather have some sort of crystal clear liability on the books than the murky world of regulations between the Departments of Defense and State. I think they realize that there's a gap here, and no one ever intended for contractors to get away with murder."
But the aide maintained that senators backing the bill still would prefer to have White House support.
"We're trying to come up with good policy that's workable," the staffer said. "We would like to get to the point where the administration at least won't object to what we have here."
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