If congressional Democrats want to show the country that their leadership will be a force for change, they will have to do better than they have in recent days. Despite an all-night session recently, Senate Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to force a vote on a mandated timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. And in the days before, far too many Democrats in the House and Senate caved in to the gun lobby by voting with Republicans to prohibit police from sharing gun tracking data. This dismal performance only reinforces the cynical notion that even as power shifts from one party to another, it remains politics as usual.

As it happens, there is another opportunity for Democratic leaders, and the rank-and-file, to show some spine. They can embrace a bipartisan bill that would allow detainees at Guantanamo to go to court to challenge their indefinite detention.

The bill, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee’s ranking minority member, is called the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007.

As The Washington Post observes, the measure is needed because of what happened last year, when Republicans still controlled Congress and passed new restrictions on detainee legal challenges. That legislation was not only an attempt to curry favor with voters just before the midterm elections. It also helped the White House by short-circuiting hundreds of lawsuits that had been filed on behalf of Guantanamo detainees challenging President Bush’s claim that he has the right to hold them indefinitely as enemy combatants.

Some of those legal challenges continued to wind their way through the system, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review one case soon. While some critics of the detainee policy are worried that the court’s newly constituted 5-4 conservative majority will side with the White House, the opposite might well be true. It was conservatives, after all, who first raised the alarm about the Bush administration’s penchant for trampling on basic liberties in the name of homeland security.

Nonetheless, there is no good reason for Congress to wait until the high court rules. To the contrary, it has an obligation to uphold one of this nation’s most cherished principles — namely, that the accused have a right to their day in court — and to do it now.

Granted, the idea of giving suspected terrorists the habeus corpus rights of citizens may seem reckless and repugnant. But that is the point — there is no way to know if the detainees are in fact terrorists if they cannot have access to the courts and are held in secret. There is no way to tell, that is, if they have been rightly or wrongly accused.

How can a country dedicated to the rule of law allow such treatment?

— The Times Union of Albany

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