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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.

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.

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