WASHINGTON — The face of Republican opposition to President Barack Obama's policy for handling suspected terrorists is a 43-year-old former prosecutor who has been in the Senate a mere 11 months.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte is at the forefront of the escalating fight over whether to treat captured suspects as prisoners of war or criminals. The administration says it is determined to build on its success in killing al-Qaida's Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and frustrated by lawmakers' meddling. Republicans counter that Congress is filling a void created by Obama's failure to establish a consistent system on how to treat suspects.
"The administration doesn't have a detainee policy," Ayotte said in an interview. "It's ad hoc. ... There's a lack of clarity in the administration's positions."
In a strong message to the Obama administration, the Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected an effort to strip provisions dealing with terror suspects from a massive defense bill. The White House has threatened to veto the bill over several provisions, including one requiring military custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States.
The vote was 61-37 against an amendment by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to delete the provisions and hold hearings with intelligence and military officials on the issue.
As the Senate pushes to complete a massive defense bill this week, the confrontation is testing the constitutional boundaries of executive and legislative authority as well as the mettle of a Democratic commander in chief in a politically charged environment.
Steadfast in defending the provisions are longtime members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and familiar players from past detainee debates – the panel's chairman, Carl Levin, D-Mich.; its top Republican, Arizona's John McCain and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Joining that cadre is Ayotte, who served as New Hampshire's attorney general for five years and is married to Lt. Col. Joe Daley, a reservist fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq.
"We don't want to tell a terrorist you have the right to remain silent," Ayotte said Tuesday during Senate debate. "That's the issue here."
Legal affairs and the ongoing war on terror are major elements of Ayotte's life, and she requested a seat on the Armed Services panel when she arrived in Washington in January. At hearing after hearing, she pressed senior Pentagon officials about what the United States does with captured suspected terrorists and why some 27 percent of detainees transferred back to their home countries return to the battlefield.
"The answers I got from the military and the Defense Department was very unsatisfying," Ayotte said.
In the spring, she spent a day at the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a facility she described as top rate with a state-of-the-art courtroom for military tribunals.
This fall, she has been outspoken in rejecting administration criticism of the detainee provisions, complaints from the White House, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller that the legislation is congressional micromanaging and would thwart ongoing terrorism investigations.
"She has a good understanding of the difference between fighting a crime and a war. And she's been very helpful in constructing a legal system that recognizes the difference between fighting a crime and a war," Graham said.
Ayotte has pushed even harder than some of her colleagues, offering an amendment to the defense bill to expand forms of interrogation of suspected terrorists detained by the United States.
Her measure would authorize new interrogation methods beyond those established in the Army Field Manual, which specifically prohibits torture and degrading treatment. Ayotte's proposal would allow for a classified section to the manual, which civil rights groups say could be used to sanction more aggressive techniques.
More than 30 civil rights groups say Ayotte's amendment to a defense bill would "dangerously roll back" restrictions on interrogation techniques that Congress overwhelmingly approved in 2005 by allowing interrogators to use new methods beyond those allowed in the Army Field Manual. They've warned it could reopen the door to methods they consider to be torture.
"Some of these amendments are solutions in search of problems, especially the amendment on interrogation," said Devon Chaffee, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "No one in the military is asking for this amendment. Even the military and intelligence services believe they have what they need."
Ayotte says the criticism is unfounded and dismisses the suggestion that it would allow cruel and inhumane treatment as false.
Privately, Republicans and Democrats describe the freshman senator as studious and hard-working. A fiscal and social conservative, Ayotte narrowly won the GOP Senate nomination last year – she got a boost when Sarah Palin called her "one tough Granite grizzly" – and rode the Republican wave to Capitol Hill. She is the mother of two young children, 7-year-old Katherine and 5-year-old Jacob.
Unlike some in the GOP freshmen class, former House members Rob Portman, Roy Blunt and Pat Toomey, the Nashua-born Ayotte had no previous elective experience; attorney general is an appointed position.
"She was a real person before she was a U.S. senator," said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "Not a lot of them are."
Cullen said that as attorney general, Ayotte was "always measured, never bombastic."
She recently endorsed Mitt Romney for president, a critical move in the state that holds the first primary. Romney was pressed on possible vice presidential choices, said providing names would be presumptuous and then added: "There probably are 15 names of people, including Kelly Ayotte."