Bush gets wins on terror bills

But party infighting may threaten his push for tough security measures

September 21, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans handed President Bush narrow victories yesterday on two broad anti-terrorism measures, sending them to likely votes next week, but the gains came amid signs that party infighting is still threatening to derail the president's election-year push for tough security bills.

After a week of intense lobbying from administration officials, Republican lawmakers on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees pushed through a measure to expand government surveillance powers, particularly at the National Security Agency. And, after initially failing to muster enough votes to approve Bush's proposed rules for interrogating enemy combatants, Judiciary Republicans performed procedural contortions to corral enough support to pass it.

Democrats immediately accused the president and Republicans in Congress of playing politics with national security and tried to pre-empt efforts to cast Democrats as blocking measures to make the country safer.

The president's bill to authorize more aggressive interrogation techniques and set rules for trying terrorist suspects hit an initial snag, but the House Judiciary Committee approved it, largely along party lines, after a second vote.

Critics said the challenges Republicans had garnering support for the bill would bolster the efforts of three dissident Senate Republicans who are trying to tighten rules governing interrogations on enemy combatants.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist reported progress but no deal in the negotiations with the three defectors.

The surveillance bill's path in the lead-up to the November elections has been far rougher than the White House had hoped, but lawmakers said they expect a final passage next week, before members hit the campaign trail, despite opposition from libertarian conservatives.

Senate action on the surveillance bill has been delayed until at least next week, and negotiations could still deadlock, but congressional aides say its prospects for passage are still good.

"If the Senate and the White House have reached an agreement, that is probably what would end up becoming law and making its way to the president's desk," said Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the Intelligence Committee chairman.

Both the House and Senate measures would legalize the president's warrantless surveillance program, which allows the NSA to monitor phone calls and e-mail involving people suspected to be tied to al-Qaida between the United States and overseas.

They also would expand that power to include conversations that did not involve terrorism.

The Senate bill would allow the president to submit his program to a secret national security court to determine its constitutionality. The House version would instead grant the president warrantless spying power after an attack.

The prospects for the House bill improved considerably after the author of the measure, Republican Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, made last-minute changes to her bill. Her revisions brought it more in line with Bush's desire for broader surveillance power.

Wilson said her bill aims to determine "what is reasonable" surveillance when the country is facing the possibility of terrorists among us.

The two key changes in the House bill would allow warrantless eavesdropping and searches of homes in the event of an "imminent threat" that involves loss of life, bodily harm, or economic damage; and eliminate a requirement that all members of the Intelligence Committee be apprised of warrantless spying.

Wilson said her bill will strengthen oversight because it provides the committee chairman the option of notifying other members of warrantless spying.

Critics, however, said that both bills hand the president too much unchecked power.

The debate quickly dissolved into partisan posturing, which at times turned personal, at Democratic and Republican news conferences.

California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, said the bill her committee passed was illegal. "It allows for broad eavesdropping on Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment and fails to provide any new tools" to intelligence officers, she said.

The Republicans' rejection of several Democratic amendments, such as one designed to bolster the resources for issuing search warrants for eavesdropping inside the country, showed they were using the bill as a political tool, "designed to improve Republican chances in the November elections," she said.

Republicans countered that Harman knew about the warrantless NSA program long before it became public, and she should have altered the program then, if she had concerns.

"Mrs. Harman knew about this program for three or four years and did nothing," Wilson said. "Where was she?"

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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