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Warner challenges Frist over stalled defense measure

Demands a vote on bill that sets policy, spending

WASHINGTON -- One of the Senate's old bulls is locking horns with majority leader Bill Frist over a stalled defense bill, spotlighting how fractious debate over the wartime measure has become.

The challenge by the Armed Services Committee chairman, John W. Warner Jr., Republican of Virginia, a 27-year Senate veteran, is unusual because Warner is known for quietly seeking consensus rather than waging public battles. It's also rare for a defense bill written during a war to run into problems in Congress.

And the dispute illustrates how some of Frist's GOP colleagues have not hesitated to confront him in a year that has seen the Senate prove difficult to control.

The potential 2008 presidential candidate has faced several setbacks, some at the hands of his own rank and file, and now federal investigators are examining his sale of stock in a healthcare chain owned by his family.

At issue is the annual bill that sets Pentagon policy and plans its spending. Although Warner's committee passed the bill in May, the full Senate might not end up voting on it. Unlike other authorization bills, the defense bill has been passed for the past 40 years.

Warner, 78, with only one year left as Armed Services Committee chairman before having to step aside under Senate rules, doesn't want that streak broken on his watch.

''Sure as I'm standing on this floor right here, we're gonna have that bill up" for debate, the former Navy secretary vowed recently.

The stalemate began in July when Frist, a Tennessee Republican, who shepherds President Bush's agenda through the Senate by deciding which bills go to a vote, abruptly stopped debate on the bill. That avoided a high-profile fight over amendments, supported by Warner and sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, that would restrict the Pentagon's handling of detainees in the war on terror.

The White House had threatened to veto the entire measure over the issue and sent Vice President Dick Cheney to Capitol Hill to press the administration's opposition.

Frist also was concerned that the extraordinary number of amendments proposed -- more than 200 -- could eat away at the time needed for other legislation. An aide said Frist hopes that the bill can be completed, but it must be done ''in a timely manner and with relevant amendments."

The majority leader has resisted scheduling a vote even as other Republican heavyweights bearing military credentials have lined up behind Warner.

Besides McCain, a former Vietnam War prisoner of war, they include Senator Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, an Air Force lawyer for 20 years, and Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Formal and reserved in public, Warner is a loyal Republican known for reaching across party lines and keeping disputes private. He also has shown a willingness to buck the White House. Last year he summoned top Pentagon officials to hearings about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the Iraq war, drawing attention to issues the White House was hoping to play down.

In the spring, Warner was one of seven Republicans who joined seven Democrats in a deal that blocked Frist from banning filibusters of the president's judicial nominees. It is unclear whether Warner's involvement with the group has strained his relationship with Frist.

That pact was just one of several troubles that have befallen Frist this year.

Frist, a transplant surgeon, drew some criticism when he questioned Terry Schiavo's diagnosis after viewing a videotape of her during the debate over removing her feeding tube. He also failed to get John Bolton confirmed as United Nations ambassador, a post Bolton gained only when Bush used his powers for a temporary appointment.

All that has weakened Frist, 53, who vaulted to the top of the Senate in 2002 with the support of the White House and most Republicans, including Warner.

Nevertheless, the tussle over the defense bill has given him an opportunity to show some muscle and remind GOP senators that he's in charge until he retires next year for a possible presidential run.

Whatever control Frist does have almost certainly won't be enough to prevent votes on McCain's detainee amendments.

If Warner's bill isn't debated, McCain will seek to add his detainee proposals to Stevens's must-pass defense spending bill -- despite another veto threat from the White House.

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