WASHINGTON --The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill yesterday backed by the White House that would have a secret court review the constitutionality of the Bush administration's eavesdropping program.
By a party-line vote of 10-8, the committee sent the bill to the Senate floor, where a vote could come next week. The bill embodies an agreement reached by President Bush and the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, under which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would review the eavesdropping program.
Yesterday's vote was a victory for the White House in the continuing debate over the proper balance between national security and personal liberties, but it was far from the last word. Many Democrats are sure to try to derail or amend the measure when the Senate takes it up. The Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to send other provisions to the Senate floor for debate, even though they are not wholly compatible with the Specter-White House agreement.
A companion bill in the House seemed to be stalled yesterday as negotiations continued. With the campaign season heating up, the controversies surrounding the eavesdropping issue are likely to be argued in races across the country.
And the controversies are not limited to eavesdropping. The president's plan for prosecuting suspected terrorists came under renewed criticism from Republicans today as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner of Virginia, said his panel would consider a rival plan today.
In the Judiciary committee, Republicans defeated Democratic attempts to modify the eavesdropping bill. One rejected proposal would have called for more frequent reports to Congress by the National Security Agency, which has been running the eavesdropping program.
"We just don't want to see Americans' rights abused for the next 50 or 60 years because of an oversight on our part," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told the Associated Press.
Feinstein offered a competing measure that would reaffirm the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as the "exclusive" means by which wiretapping could be ordered in intelligence cases. Her measure, backed by all eight panel Democrats plus Specter and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, would seem incompatible with the Specter-White House agreement, yet Specter voted for Feinstein's measure so it can be debated on the floor.
White House spokesman Tony Snow rejected a suggestion that the Judiciary Committee had been "a little schizophrenic" in its actions. "We know that the American people want and the president wants the ability to listen in on terrorists who want to kill Americans," Snow said. "And therefore it is now up to members of Congress to go ahead and work through the issue."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, praised Feinstein's measure as one that would "protect Americans' civil liberties while making reasonable changes to ensure that the U.S. intelligence community can continue to operate and protect the nation with the necessary FISA court oversight."
The intensity of feeling aroused by the Specter-White House version was illustrated in the reaction of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee acted as a rubber stamp for the administration's abuse of power," said Caroline Fredrickson, head of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, in urging defeat by the full Senate.
The Specter-White House bill includes language implicitly recognizing the president's "constitutional authority" to collect foreign intelligence beyond the provisions of the 1978 law that created the FISA court.
For months, Specter was a leading Republican critic of the operation by the National Security Agency involving the monitoring, without warrants, of international communications of Americans.
Bush and his top aides have argued that, in the modern era of instant international communications, they cannot wait for warrants to intercept suspected terrorist messages. But critics, Specter among them, have said Bush has gone too far in his interpretation of presidential powers.
In persuading the president to accept review by the FISA court, Specter achieved what he recently called "quite a breakthrough," given Bush's strong defense of the eavesdropping program.