ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush said on Thursday he would not compromise with the Democratic-led Congress on his demand that phone companies that took part in his warrantless domestic spying program be shielded from lawsuits.
Bush has demanded Congress protect companies like AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications from civil lawsuits that accuse them of violating Americans’ privacy rights in the administration’s anti-terrorism program.
The Senate approved a measure that would grant the companies retroactive immunity but the House of Representatives has opposed it. The surveillance program began in 2001 after the September 11 attacks and some 40 lawsuits are pending.
House and Senate Democrats said they would try to find a compromise even as they said their Republican counterparts refused to permit staff to meet with them on Thursday.
“I would just tell you there’s no compromise on whether these phone companies get liability protection,” Bush told reporters as he traveled back from a trip to Africa.
A temporary law expired this weekend that expanded the federal government’s power to track communications of suspected terrorism suspects without a court order.
Bush has contended that companies would become increasingly reluctant to help U.S. intelligence agencies without immunity and he argues that without listening to those communications, the United States is in greater danger of attack.
The issue will likely be at the forefront next week when Congress returns from a 12-day recess. Bush said his strategy for breaking the deadlock will be to keep talking about why it should be passed with immunity.
“The American people understand we need to be listening to the enemy,” he said.
Democrats have countered that Bush was unnecessarily whipping up fears and said last week they were searching for common ground on the matter. Suggestions have included a secret court look at companies’ actions before getting immunity or holding the government liable instead of phone companies.
“While we are disappointed that today’s meeting could not reflect a bipartisan effort, we will continue to work and hope Republicans will join us to put our nation’s security first,” the Democratic lawmakers said in a joint statement.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro)
Writing by Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Mohammad Zargham