SEN. BILL FRIST: We will proceed to the bill on gun liability, and the objective will be to complete that this week.
KWAME HOLMAN: With that announcement yesterday, Majority Leader Bill Frist launched the Senate into debate on a bill to protect gun makers --
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: The manufacturer of that gun absolutely should not be subject to a lawsuit.
KWAME HOLMAN: -- and also into a dispute over why a major defense bill authorizing military operations was shelved in the process.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: What could be more important for us to consider than the safety, the lives and fortunes of the men and women who serve our country and risk their lives on military duty and their families?
Well, in the estimation of the Republican leader, Sen. Frist, there was one issue that was more important than talking about our men and women in uniform. That issue was providing immunity from liability for one industry in America.
KWAME HOLMAN: Frist abandoned the half-trillion-dollar military bill in order to avoid debate and votes on more than 200 amendments. Three in particular would regulate U.S. treatment of battlefield detainees in the wake of abuses found at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: If you know what the rules are about interrogating anybody, come tell me because I can't figure it out. I've spent 20 years as an Air Force lawyer myself. There's much confusion. And confusion in war is dangerous.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the White House has threatened to veto any bill that sets rules for dealing with such detainees. Last week, Vice President Cheney personally asked three Republicans - (John) Warner of Virginia, (Lindsey) Graham of South Carolina, and (John) McCain of Arizona -- to scrap amendments that would regulate detainee treatment and interrogation. But McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, argued a basic of set of rules was necessary.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I believe that we can do a great service for the military and for the country if we adopt this simple two-paragraph amendment that basically says that prisoners will be treated according to the Army field manual, which, by the way, is the tradition of treatment of prisoners for many wars.
KWAME HOLMAN: In brief debate Monday night, Jeff Sessions of Alabama was the only Republican to speak against inserting detainee language.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I reject the idea that this Defense Department and our Army and our military is out of control, is confused about what their powers and duties and responsibilities are. I reject that. I don't believe that's accurate.
KWAME HOLMAN: Frist, hoping to expedite action and eliminate the controversial amendments, called for a vote to end the debate. But Democrats and a handful of Republicans did not support him.
SPOKESMAN: The motion is not agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: And so, Frist shifted the Senate's focus to the gun bill instead, which would shield firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits as long as they did not make defective products or sell them illegally. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn:
SEN. TOM COBURN: Now anti-gun activists have found another way to constrict the right to bear arms to attack the bill of rights and attack the Constitution. And that's through frivolous litigation. This is why we're here today. To put a stop to the unmeritorious litigation that threatens to bankrupt a vital industry in this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats charged that the bill's pro-gun industry language and its priority position on the Senate agenda were disturbing signs of the power of the gun lobby. California's Dianne Feinstein:
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I for one don't believe we should be giving the gun industry sweeping and unprecedented protection from the type of lawsuits that are available to every individual involving every other industry anywhere in America.
KWAME HOLMAN: If the gun liability bill becomes law, some pending suits against gun sellers would be dismissed. The Senate defeated a similar gun bill last year, but a larger Republican majority and the support of a handful of Democrats have improved its chances. The House also is expected to pass a similar measure.