House balks at passing surveillance bill

by Dan Eggen and Michael Abramowitz, Washington Post

The House defied the White House on Thursday by refusing to make an expiring surveillance law permanent, prompting a harsh exchange between Republicans and Democrats as they prepared for an extended, election-year battle over national security.

The episode was a rare uprising by Democrats against the White House on a terrorism issue and inspired caterwauling on both sides about the dire ramifications of the standoff.

GOP lawmakers in the House staged a walkout, while President Bush offered to delay his scheduled departure to Africa today to reach a deal. Democrats responded with charges of advertisement

administration recklessness and fearmongering. advertisement

The conflict erupted on the same day that House Democrats approved contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for their refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys.

That vote, resulting in the first citations ever issued against White House officials, infuriated the Bush administration and helped torpedo a short-lived political truce with Democrats, who had celebrated the signing of a bipartisan economic stimulus package on Wednesday.

The surveillance dispute centers on the Protect America Act, a temporary law approved over Democratic misgivings last August. It expanded the powers of the government to monitor the communications of foreign targets without warrants, including international phone calls and e-mails passing through or into the United States. It is set to expire at midnight Saturday.

The Bush administration wants to make the law permanent, while adding legal immunity for telecommunication companies that were sued for invasions of privacy after helping U.S. intelligence agencies conduct warrantless wiretapping. The Senate has approved a bill backed by the White House, but the House has balked at the immunity provision and raised other objections because of civil-liberties concerns.

Without the law in place, administration officials said Thursday in interviews and statements, the monitoring of terrorist groups overseas will be severely hampered. Telecom firms may also be reluctant to help the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies conduct surveillance, officials said.

"If Congress does not act by that time, our ability to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning will be compromised," Bush said in a hastily arranged press appearance on the South Lawn of the White House. He said that intelligence officials were "waiting to see" if Congress would "tie their hands."

Democrats immediately said the expiration of the temporary law would have little if any immediate impact on intelligence gathering. "He has nothing to offer but fear," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters after Bush's address.

"I regret your reckless attempt to manufacture a crisis over the reauthorization of foreign surveillance laws," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote in a letter to Bush, coming to the defense of his colleagues in the House. "Instead of needlessly frightening the country, you should work with Congress in a calm, constructive way."

The acrimony reflects the long-simmering anger among some Democratic lawmakers and their liberal allies over their inability to thwart Bush on Iraq policy and terrorism issues since the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. It also indicates a new willingness to risk election-year attacks by Republicans alleging that Democrats are unfit to protect the country.

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the Democrats would pay a political price for leaving a national security issue unfinished and recessing for a break.

The secret court directives issued under the Protect America Act last for a year, meaning that all will remain in effect until at least August, intelligence officials said. The underlying law that has governed covert spying for 30 years, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, would also remain in effect.

Bush has used the veto pen to block repeated Democratic efforts to put restrictions on war funding and won most of the tools he considers necessary to wage the fight against terrorists despite criticism from civil libertarians. Bush also threatened a veto during the surveillance dispute, saying he would reject any legislation without retroactive immunity for the telecom firms.

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