House set to let warrantless eavesdropping law lapse

President lobbied hard Thursday for renewal of Protect America Act, which expires Feb. 16.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Neither the White House nor House Democrats blinked in a standoff over renewal of a controversial eavesdropping law, now on track to expire at midnight Saturday.

President Bush said Thursday that failure to update the Protect America Act will "harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in response, dubbed such talk fear-mongering. The president has every authority to continue needed eavesdropping under another law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), she said. Moreover, the authorities granted under the temporary surveillance law enacted in August will carry on for a year, she added.

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To House Democrats, what's at stake is whether Mr. Bush – and future presidents – are accountable to Congress. "Whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican, they can't act outside the law," said Speaker Pelosi at a press briefing.

The issue is the sharpest confrontation over presidential powers since Democrats took control of Congress last year. "Oversight is an institutional obligation to ensure against abuse of power," Pelosi said in a briefing on Thursday.

At the heart of the dispute is proposed retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that took part in the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance after the 9/11 attacks.

Without liability protection – and facing lawsuits asking for billions of dollars in damages – such companies are going to be "less likely to cooperate" with the government on national-security matters in the future, Bush said Thursday. House Democrats say these companies, along with the president, must be held to the rule of law.

The new 2008 Protect America Act would expand and update the government's ability to monitor technologies such as the Internet and cellphones. If the current law is allowed to lapse, the US will be unable to respond quickly to new terrorist threats, say Republicans and some Democrats, who are urging approval of a bill the Senate passed on Tuesday.

"The problem is what to do with the new tips, and they're coming in all the time," says Rep. Heather Wilson (R) of New Mexico.

"The House of Representatives is going to simply close up shop and leave town, saying that it's not going to hurt America," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Pelosi aides say that in the remote chance a previously unknown terrorist group must be surveilled, the administration can use FISA. "Under FISA, the attorney general can approve surveillance in minutes. Surveillance can begin immediately, and approval of the FISA court can be obtained within three days," says Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami. Unlike last summer, when Congress first passed the Protect America Act, there is no backlog of cases to slow the process of obtaining surveillance approvals from the FISA court.

Pelosi says she has instructed key committee chairman to continue work on resolving differences with their Senate counterparts on this bill over the one-week presidential recess, which begins Friday.

In a related move, House Democrats also voted to approve contempt resolutions against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for failing to testify in a House probe of the 2006 firings of nine US attorneys.

Republicans walked off the House floor to protest this vote, which passed 223 to 32, and over the refusal of House leaders to allow a vote on a bipartisan Senate version of the surveillance bill, which is backed by the White House. House Republicans say they have enough support from moderate Democrats to win a vote on the Senate bill, which passed this week on a strong bipartisan vote, 68 to 29.

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