WASHINGTON – President Bush appealed to the Democratic-controlled House for swift passage Saturday of legislation that would expand the government's powers to eavesdrop on suspected foreign terrorists.
"Protecting America is our most solemn obligation and I urge the House to pass this bill without delay," Bush said in a statement released as the president flew to Minneapolis to view the collapsed highway bridge.
Senate Democrats reluctantly agreed to passing a bill Friday night that would update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. The House planned to consider the measure Saturday after rejecting a Democratic alternative.
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Bush is demanding passage before Congress' planned summer vacation, scheduled to begin this weekend.
The president praised senators for acting "to give our intelligence professionals the legal tools and authority they need to keep America safe. I appreciate the hard work they did to find common ground to pass this critical bill. Today, the House of Representatives has an opportunity to consider that bill, pass it and send it to me for my signature."
At issue is how early a special court would review the government's surveillance of foreigners' overseas phone calls and Internet messages without warrants.
The Senate-approved plan, largely developed by the White House, barely made it through after Bush promised to veto a stricter proposal that would have required a court review to begin within 10 days. The measure that passed would give Bush the expanded eavesdropping authority for six months.
Senate Republicans, aided by the national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, said the update to the 1978 surveillance law would at least temporarily close national security gaps.
"Al-Qaida is not going on vacation this month," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "And we can't either until we know we've done our duty to the American people."
House Democrats lost an effort to push a proposal that called for stricter court oversight of the way the government would ensure its spying would not target Americans.
"We can have security and our civil liberties," said Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
Current law requires court review of government surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States. It does not specifically address the government's ability to intercept messages believed to come from foreigners overseas.
The administration began pressing for changes to the law after a recent ruling by the special FISA court. That decision barred the government from eavesdropping on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through U.S. communications carriers, including Internet sites.
Democrats agreed the law should not restrict U.S. spies from tapping in on foreign suspects. But they initially demanded that the court review the eavesdropping process before it began, to ensure that Americans are not targeted.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., chastised his colleagues for bending to the administration's will.
"The day we start deferring to someone who's not a member of this body ... is a sad day for the U.S. Senate," Feingold said.
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