By Randall Mikkelsen and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, Oct 10 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush warned Democrats against backsliding in the war on terrorism in new eavesdropping legislation as lawmakers on Wednesday defied his call to shield phone companies from pending lawsuits.
Committees in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives met to begin work on legislation to replace a temporary eavesdropping measure, the Protect America Act, which the administration pushed through in August.
The proposed legislation expands court supervision of the U.S. foreign eavesdropping program and adds new measures to protect the civil liberties of Americans who may be caught up in the surveillance of suspected terrorists.
"The legislation before us today seeks to once again strike the appropriate balance between needed government authority and our precious rights and liberties," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
But Bush appeared on the White House lawn to say he had serious concerns about the proposed measure and it "would take us backward."
"The Protect America Act is a vital tool in stopping the terrorists, and it would be a grave mistake for Congress to weaken this tool," Bush told reporters.
Shortly after he spoke, the House Judiciary Committee voted 21-14 to reject an amendment sought by the White House that would shield telecommunications firms retroactively from lawsuits for participating in a secret warrantless eavesdropping program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The proposed legislation would protect the firms from future lawsuits provided they comply with the law but not from pending suits.
Critics say the program was illegal. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, sued telephone company AT&T Inc last year and accused it of illegally allowing the government to monitor phone calls and e-mails.
The White House maintains Bush acted within his authority in ordering the program.
Bush said the new bill "must grant liability protection to companies who are facing multibillion dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks."
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said the liability issue should be a court matter. "Let the courts decide whether these companies, or some of them, were acting patriotically with nobility and legally, or if they were breaking the law."
Democrats hope to get the bills approved by the Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday and before the full House for passage next week. The Senate Intelligence Committee is working on a bill of its own.