WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush said Saturday that Congress must give its immediate attention to an economic stimulus package and an extension of the law governing how U.S. intelligence agencies carry out electronic eavesdropping.
The White House and House of Representatives leaders of both parties reached agreement on a simply drawn stimulus program, which would provide tax rebate checks to 117 million families and give businesses $50 billion in incentives to invest in new plants and equipment. In his weekly radio address, Bush asked Congress to approve the agreement "as soon as possible."
Some in the Senate, which will take up the measure after it goes to the House floor next week, have signaled that they want to broaden the bill. Democrats there want such things as an unemployment benefits extension, an increase in home heating subsidies or higher food welfare benefits. Bush suggested they could derail the whole effort, and he warned against it.
"While I understand the desire to add provisions from both the left and the right, it would be a mistake to undermine this important bipartisan agreement," the president said. "By working together, we can provide our economy with a shot in the arm when we need it most."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said Saturday: "The White House's cooperation with Congress in recent days is long, long overdue. And it's encouraging. But let's hope it is habit-forming."
But Dorgan, delivering the Democrats' weekly radio address, added: "We need to do so much, much more. We need to fix the bigger economic issues that threaten our country's future."
Among those issues, Dorgan said, are the cost of the ongoing war in Iraq, the subprime mortgage crisis and the U.S. trade deficit.
The eavesdropping law expires Feb. 1, and there are many contentious issues yet to be resolved. Among them: How much oversight, and by whom, of the government's surveillance of communications involving people inside the United States with those outside the country, and whether to grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government conduct warrantless surveillance.
The bill would modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates when federal agents must obtain court permission before tapping phone and computer lines inside the United States to gather intelligence on foreign threats. Agents may conduct surveillance outside the United States without court oversight.
"If this law expires, it will become harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to infiltrate our country, harder for us to uncover terrorist plots, and harder to prevent attacks on the American people," Bush said. "We need to know who our enemies are and what they are plotting. And we cannot afford to wait until after an attack to put the pieces together."
Bush's radio address served as a preview of part of his State of the Union address, which he delivers to a joint session of Congress on Monday night. He said the FISA bill and the economic legislation "require immediate attention."
Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday that Bush will use the annual speech, the most high-profile one he delivers each year, to generally challenge the Democratic-led Congress to complete its "unfinished business" and "demonstrate to voters back home that they are able to get things done."
"Remember," she said, "2007 was labeled the 'do-nothing Congress.' Hopefully in 2008, there are some things that we can get done."
Perino also said that one focus of the State of the Union address will be new policies that Bush plans to put in place without congressional involvement, through executive orders or other administrative action. Some involve measures aimed at helping with housing crisis that is tamping down the economy, she said.
"On a parallel track while waiting for Congress to get off their duffs and do something about it, the president decided to ask his advisers, what can we do here from the executive branch?" Perino said.