WASHINGTON – President Bush's embattled anti-terrorism plans got a boost Wednesday when a wiretap bill was revised and a Senate Republican leader said he was hopeful a deal was near on treatment of detainees.
Prospects for the two critical pieces of legislation remained unclear; Congress is speeding toward a recess next week as Republicans fight to retain majority control in the midterm elections.
Nevertheless, a bill by Rep. Heather Wilson gained steam Wednesday after she rewrote it to allow warrantless wiretapping when an attack is imminent, as Bush has demanded. Even so, she told reporters differences between the House and Senate versions were unlikely to be worked out before Congress reconvenes in a lame-duck session after the Nov. 7 elections.
Democrats sat on the sidelines "watching the catfights" among Republicans on terrorism surveillance and detainee legislation, said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He noted that Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was forced to postpone consideration of those bills this week; the Senate instead is holding a floor debate on border security "because they have nothing else to do."
Neither the White House nor the rebellious Republican senators had the votes necessary to move forward on how to handle the nation's most dangerous terror suspects. The two sides remained at odds over how to adhere to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and — simultaneously — give the CIA wide leeway to conduct interrogations.
In the House, there was more evidence that support was far from solid for the detainee bill approved overwhelmingly last week by the Armed Services Committee. A second panel, the Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday reported the same bill with an "unfavorable recommendation," a procedural bump expected to be smoothed before the legislation reaches the House floor next week.
House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said he expected significant differences between any bills passed by the House and Senate.
"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," Hoekstra said at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
Despite the stalemate, Frist sought to reassure the GOP troops that a deal still was possible.
"I am hopeful that very soon agreement can be reached with the president and with the majority of Republicans," Frist said. "But we need to do it in a way that we're not sharing classified information with those terrorists who clearly will pass it on to others around the world to be used against us."
He spoke as House Republicans moved closer to the administration's position on domestic wiretapping.
Wilson's bill initially would have given legal status to Bush's domestic surveillance program only after an attack. Instead, her bill now would grant the administration's plea to allow wiretapping against Americans without warrants when it is believed a terrorist attack is imminent.
But that concession carried a price for the president, according to a draft.
Under the measure, the administration would be required to share more details of the nature of the threat with House and Senate leaders and the chairmen of both intelligence committees, who then would decide without administration input which lawmakers would receive the classified information.
"Excesses are best prevented when intelligence activities are operated within a framework that controls government power by using checks and balances among the three branches of government," Wilson, R-N.M., said in a statement.
Her substitute, being considered Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, represents a possible breakthrough in a bitter, election-season rift between the White House and GOP leaders on one side and Republican lawmakers concerned about Bush's use of executive authority in his war on terror.
Also Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee considered the detainee issue under a bill passed 52-8 by the Armed Services Committee last week. The panel rejected, 18-17, an amendment by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to bring that bill more in line with the one proposed by the maverick Republicans, which would put more restrictions than the White House would like on interrogation techniques.
Under the Wilson bill, several parties must be notified in writing that "the president has determined that there exists an imminent threat of attack likely to cause death serious injury or substantial economic damage to the United States."
The notification must:
—Be submitted within five days of the president's authorization of the surveillance.
—Name the entity or entities responsible for the threat.
—State the reason for believing the attack is imminent.
—Describe the foreign intelligence expected to be obtained through the surveillance and the means of the surveillance.
The bill also would prevent the president or his designee from authorizing the surveillance of a person unless they have "a reasonable belief" that the subject is communicating with a group responsible for the imminent threat, and that the information obtained "may be foreign intelligence information."
Wilson also added provisions that would spell out that the House and Senate intelligence committee chairmen would have sole discretion to share the information with all or any panel members and staff.