Congress pushes back, hard, against Bush

Blindsided by news of domestic spying, it is holding up a key bill.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From a standoff over the Patriot Act to pushback from Capitol Hill on the treatment of detainees, secret prisons abroad, and government eavesdropping at home, tensions between the Bush White House and the Republican-controlled Congress have never been more exposed.

Much of the rift is over the exercise of executive power. Some lawmakers oppose the president on the values involved in harsh interrogation of terror suspects. Others are riled that they were left out of the intelligence loop.

Even Republicans who favor renewing the Patriot Act were blindsided by news Friday, later confirmed, that President Bush had authorized secret eavesdropping on international communications from people in the US with ties to terrorists.

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"It's inexcusable ... clearly and categorically wrong," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who was not among the congressional leaders Mr. Bush says had been briefed on the program. Senator Specter promises that the Judiciary Committee he chairs will hold hearings on domestic spying by the National Security Agency in the new year.

"We'll look at what they did, whose conversations they listened to, what they did with the material, and what purported justification there was for it," he adds.

At press time, the White House and Senate GOP leaders were still short of the votes to renew provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire on Dec. 31.

On Friday, four Republicans and all but two Democrats opposed a move to end a filibuster and vote on reauthorizing the 2001 law. Instead, they are urging a three-month extension to reopen negotiations to boost protections for civil liberties.

Several senators cited disclosures of a secret US eavesdropping program in that morning's New York Times as the basis for their "no" vote. Democrats say as many as eight votes were swayed by the report. "We had 12 'possible leaners' going into the vote," says Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.

Citing conversations with senators who voted against the bill, Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona attributed the loss to fears of the abuse of government power. "There's a feeling out there and it's hard to go against that feeling," he says. Senator Kyl and other Republicans say they will keep pressing the need for the Patriot Act, which they say is widely misunderstood.

Scrapping his taped radio address hailing this week's Iraq elections, President Bush on Saturday instead lashed out at media, and at congressional critics of his decision to approve eavesdropping - without a warrant. Revealing such information in the press, he said, "is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country." He also said the Senate filibuster on the Patriot Act is "irresponsible, and it endangers of lives of our citizens."

In an interview with "Fox News Sunday," Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid acknowledged that he had been briefed on the eavesdropping program "a couple of months ago." But he added that "the president can't pass the buck on this one. It's his program." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she, too, had been briefed, and had raised "strong concerns" at the time, according to the Associated Press.

The dustup over domestic spying and the Patriot Act follows a series of congressional assaults on executive power, especially over the conduct of the war against terrorism.

Facing a revolt on Capitol Hill, Bush reversed his stand opposing a ban on "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of detainees.

The ban, proposed by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who survived years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp, won 90 votes in the Senate. In the House, 107 Republicans joined virtually all Democrats in passing the resolution.

"We have sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists," said Senator McCain at a White House news conference with the president on Thursday.

Congress is also ramping up for investigations of overseas detention centers, another story first disclosed in press reports, as well as Phase 2 of an investigation on whether the Bush administration exaggerated the prewar intelligence on Iraq. Democrats, who last month called the Senate into an unusual secret session to draw attention to this issue, say the investigation is now "moving along."

Rifts between Republicans and the White House also opened wide on immigration policy. In the House, many conservatives strongly opposed moves to include the president's guest worker fix in a bill to improve border security.

"In time of war the president gets a certain period when he has a freer hand, but inevitably that period ends. Congress eventually reasserts itself," says John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Legislative-executive tensions are now overriding party unity."

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