WASHINGTON – In a day of political brinkmanship, President Bush pressured the House on Thursday to finish a bill giving the government more leeway to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists. House Democrats didn't budge and angry Republicans staged a walkout down the Capitol steps.
From the White House, Bush argued that the House has plenty of time to pass a bill before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expires at midnight Saturday. The president plans to leave on a five-nation trip to Africa on Friday afternoon, but said he'd delay his departure and stay in Washington "if it will help them complete their work on this critical bill."
On Capitol Hill, House Republicans stormed out of the House chamber to boycott a vote to hold two presidential confidants in contempt for failing to cooperate with an inquiry into whether federal prosecutors were ousted for political reasons.
"We have space on the calendar today for a politically charged fishing expedition, but no space for a bill that would protect the American people from terrorists who want to kill us," said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the minority leader.
"Let's just get up and leave," he told his colleagues, before walking out with scores of Republicans in tow.
A short time later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had instructed Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers to meet with their Senate counterparts by Friday to start reconciling the House and Senate eavesdropping legislation -- something she predicted could be done within 21 days.
The first step must be reconciliation of the two bills, she said, adding: "If the president wants to work together on that -- we have been trying mightily to get the administration to engage."
Bush is backing the Senate-passed bill, which includes retroactive protection from lawsuits that telecommunications companies are facing because they cooperated with government eavesdropping following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The House bill does not provide immunity from lawsuits for the telecommunications companies.
Rather than wait for the House and Senate to negotiate differences in their versions of the intelligence legislation, Bush wants a rubber-stamp of the Senate bill so he can sign it into law immediately. Bush has said he will not approve another extension, and House Republicans helped defeat a 21-day extension of the law on Thursday.
In his second statement on the bill at the White House in two days, Bush said that "it would be a mistake" if Congress allowed the law to expire. "Members of Congress knew all along that this deadline was approaching," he said. "They set it themselves. They've had more than six months to discuss and deliberate. And now they must act."
He rebuffed claims that the issue had turned into a political game of chicken.
"I certainly hope not," Bush said. "I can assure you al-Qaida, in their planning, isn't thinking about politics. They're thinking about hurting the American people again."
In a letter to Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats stand ready to reconcile the two bills, but that the current law should be extended until that could be accomplished.
"Your opposition to an extension is inexplicable. ... Nonetheless, you have chosen to let the Protect America Act expire," Reid wrote. "You bear responsibility for any intelligence collection gap that may result." Reid also said he saw no crisis that should lead Bush to cancel his trip to Africa.
Expiration of the current law would not mean an immediate end to eavesdropping on suspected terrorists. Existing surveillance could continue under the law for a year from when it began -- at least until August. Any new surveillance the government wants to institute could be implemented through underlying FISA rules, which could require warrants from a secret court.
But the White House says that if the law expires, the attorney general and the director of national intelligence would be stripped of the power to authorize new certifications against foreign intelligence targets, including international terrorists abroad. The White House says the government would be unable to get assistance from private companies, which are not assisting the government now but may be called on in the future, to collect foreign intelligence information about terrorists and other foreign threats.
"Without this liability shield, we may not be able to secure the private sector's cooperation. ... and that of course would put the American people at risk," Bush said.
Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed the Bush administration's warnings of dire consequences if the current law lapses. The underlying intelligence surveillance law that would be reverted to, along with other federal law and presidential orders, give Bush authority he needs for spying and other measures, she said.
"We are trying to pass a bill that protects the American people and protects the Constitution," she said. "We know the president has the authority to do everything he needs to do to protect the American people in the interim."
Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, said the current law is not enough because it does not include immunity for the phone companies.
"We must rely on the private sector to be effective," McConnell said, adding that failure to pass the Senate bill will do "grave damage to our ability to protect the nation."