WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans blocked Democratic attempts to rein in President Bush's domestic wiretapping program Wednesday amid a sustained White House campaign to give the administration broad authority to monitor, interrogate and prosecute terrorism suspects.
While refusing to give the president a blank check to prosecute the War on Terror, Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee kept to the White House's condition that a bill giving legal status to the surveillance program pass unamended.
By voice vote and roll calls, Republicans defeated Democratic amendments to insert a one-year expiration date into the bill and require the National Security Agency to report more often to Congress on the standards for its domestic surveillance 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," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who joined some Republicans in opposing some amendments offered by her Democratic colleagues.
But Republicans countered that the bill represented the best deal on the matter and should not be amended — conforming with the White House's condition that Bush would sign it into law if passed unchanged.
The deal is part of the White House's election-season campaign to preserve its ability to fight the war on terror despite congressional concerns about civil liberties.
A parade of White House officials seeking support for legal tools against terrorists was to culminate Thursday with an appearance by Bush himself before House Republicans anxious to maintain their majority in the November elections.
Under firm pressure from the administration, Republicans were expected to advance separate versions of bills to give legal status to Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, but also impose some restrictions not embraced by the White House.
Behind-the-scenes negotiations were intense Wednesday. As the Senate bill moved toward committee approval, the House Judiciary Committee abruptly canceled its markup that had been scheduled to happen simultaneously. The reason for the cancellation wasn't immediately clear.
Sen. Arlen Specter, sponsor of one administration-backed bill, acknowledged that GOP lawmakers fighting for re-election may not embrace a measure bearing Bush's stamp of approval.
"It is popular to have bills that are not White House bills," Specter, R-Pa., told reporters recently.
He was speaking of Republican support for the House version, which is opposed by the White House because it imposes more restrictions on the program than Specter's.
Sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and endorsed by House GOP leaders, that measure would require the president to wait until an attack has occurred to initiate wiretapping without warrants, a provision administration officials say would hamper the White House's ability to prevent attacks.
Instead, the Bush administration has given Specter's version a highly conditional endorsement, as long as it is passed unchanged — not a sure thing given the amendments and substitutes that await it on the floor.
Specter's bill would submit the warrantless wiretapping program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for a one-time constitutional review and extend from the current three days to seven days the time allowed for emergency surveillance before a warrant application is submitted and approved by that court.
The proposals were two of several bills to alter or change portions of Bush's war on terror that inspired him this week to send several emissaries to Capitol Hill.
Vice President Dick Cheney and other top aides encountered stiff resistance from senators and House leaders. The standoffs raised questions about whether the president could unite Republicans on his anti-terror agenda before November's midterm elections.
Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten appealed to Senate Republicans during their weekly policy lunch Tuesday to pass legislation that would let the president begin prosecuting terror suspects. The legislation also would limit the circumstances under which a government interrogator could be prosecuted for mistreating a detainee.
CIA Director Michael Hayden also met with lawmakers this week on detainee treatment.