WASHINGTON – Democrats' growing disapproval of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is one of the hang-ups preventing progress on the update of a key terror surveillance law, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday.
The acrimony is the spillover from several investigations into Gonzales, his department's firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year and a controversial bedside visit Gonzales paid to his predecessor, John Ashcroft, in 2004 to discuss the legality of the administration's terrorist surveillance program. Just last week, Democrats called for a perjury investigation into Gonzales' testimony on the latter issue.
The administration, with backing from GOP lawmakers, is pushing for a change to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Democrats agree changes need to be made, but are saying that the administration's proposals would put too much power in the hands of the attorney general.
On Wednesday, Reid expressed guarded optimism that a deal could be struck, but pointed to Gonzales as the problem.
"I believe that's something we can work out," Reid said, then adding: "There's no guarantee that we can work this out.
"The hang up as I see it now is what the involvement of the attorney general would be," Reid said.
Asked if his concern was broadly the office of the attorney general, or Gonzales specifically, Reid smiled, then said: "You should know the answer to that. It's him more than the concept."
FISA is law central to the prosecution of terror suspects, it lays out procedures for monitoring spies and terrorists on U.S. and foreign soil, as well as how U.S. citizens who come under surveillance should be treated.
The administration wants to give more authority to the attorney general to determine when surveillance is legal, saying that authority given the administration under current law doesn’t allow it to act fast enough to monitor suspected terrorists.
The administration has held several recent briefings with lawmakers stressing the urgency for updating the law. One of the participants, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, last week sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for certain changes and agreeing to a limited, short-term fix.
Democrats, however, are expressing concerns in giving the administration too much authority, and would rather see much of it rest in the courts — albeit the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court created under the act. They provided a counterproposal to administration officials Tuesday evening.
Via a statement, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said: ”A significant difference between our approaches has been the administration's interest in putting new authorities in the hands of Attorney General Gonzales, while we believe the independent FISA court should exercise oversight of the effort."
And an aide for a Democratic senator involved in the negotiations also confirmed the broader concern over Gonzales, saying: "Does the AG really deserve, and should he get more responsibility?"
At issue is the complicated process of intercepting communications between foreign sources. A foreign-based call to another foreign location could be routed through U.S. telecommunication networks, and could involve a U.S. citizen answering one leg of a call. The concern, one aide explained, is that U.S. officials cannot differentiate between foreign-to-foreign calls that have no U.S. component and those that do.
As a result, Democrats want to see an expedited process that involves the FISA Court.
"There needs to be a differentiation, some check, but nothing that will slow it down," the aide said. The administration, rather, would in this case leave the determination of probable cause of terror activity would rest on the attorney general's shoulders. Democrats oppose that, but say they would allow the court to approve surveillance after it has begun.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Democrats' concerns are overblown.
"This is way too important to be determined by any one individual. ...This really needs to be done now."
Earlier Wednesday, appearing with Reid before reporters after the White House meeting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also hinted that a compromise would come to pass.
"To the extent that more flexibility is needed, as Director McConnell has indicated, we are prepared to make those accommodations under the law," Pelosi said. "We hope to do that this week."
The White House responded with measured optimism.
"I think they understand and appreciate the importance," Bush spokesman Tony Snow said of Democratic leaders. "We will see."
Meanwhile, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who has called for censuring the president and supports impeaching Gonzales, late Wednesday suggested including a 90-day sunset provision to the bill "to ensure Congress has the chance to identify and fix any problems with this new proposal."
And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., offered a compromise in the hopes of speeding the process along. But he didn't do so without criticizing the administration, saying their plans would give "excessive" powers to the attorney general, and "That is simply unacceptable."
Rockefeller said his plan would last six months, prompting another review of the process at the end of that period. The proposal would keep so-called foreign-to-foreign collection outside of FISA's reach; ensure that the FISA Court maintain oversight role when surveillance "touches on individuals inside the U.S."; and expand the FISA Court's authority to issue court orders regarding "aggregated foreign collection."
Rockefeller said he would leave in place the court's authority to minimize privacy invasions and to determine when warrants are required for U.S. citizens, as well as maintain the court's ability to force private telecommunication firms' assistance in investigations.
We need the administration to act quickly if we are going to pass this critical piece of legislation in the next few days," Rockefeller said, according to a prepared statement.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.