WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush on Friday and recessed without replacing an expiring spy law with one that would shield telephone companies from lawsuits.
With the temporary law set to expire on Saturday, Bush accused Democrats of undermining U.S. security. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer denied it and accused Bush of election-year fear-mongering.
Hoyer said he and fellow Democrats were reaching out to Republicans, and hoped to soon agree on a bill to replace the expiring law passed by Congress in August that expanded the power of U.S. authorities track suspected terrorists without a court order.
“We will not, however, be stampeded,” Hoyer said.
Bush met with congressional Republican leaders at the White House on Friday morning and took aim at House Democrats.
“When they come back from that 12-day recess, the House leaders must understand that the decision they made to block good legislation has made it harder for us to protect you, the American people,” Bush said.
“We expect now to get a good bill to my desk — which is the Senate bill — to my desk as soon as possible,” Bush said before he departed on a six-day trip to Africa that he had considered delaying to try to resolve the stalemate over the eavesdropping bill.
The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to replace the “Protect America Act.” But House Democratic leaders refused to bring it up for a vote, and Bush and his fellow Republicans along with some Democrats rejected a brief extension of the law.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, joined Hoyer at a Capitol Hill news conference and said lawmakers were searching for common ground.
“We are wrestling with what to me is the key question of retroactive immunity” for telephone companies that participated in Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program, Conyers said.
“We have, I think, the beginnings of what could lead to a positive resolution,” Conyers said without elaboration.
The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires that the government receive the approval of a secret court to conduct surveillance in the United States of suspected foreign enemy targets.
But after September 11, Bush authorized warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected terrorist ties.
About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating Americans’ privacy rights in the surveillance program.
Some lawmakers have suggested a secret court review of phone companies’ actions before they could be granted immunity.
Democrats also disputed Bush’s contention that the expiration of the law would place the United States at increased risk.
They noted that spy operations begun under the “Protect America Act” could continue for up to a year. They also noted that new ones could begin with an emergency court order.
The administration contends, however, that obtaining court orders could be time-consuming and result in authorities failing to track and lose enemy targets.
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said in a Washington Post opinion piece on Friday it was getting harder to win surveillance cooperation from phone companies due to the uncertainty over new legislation.
McConnell said if Congress does not grant immunity “it will severely degrade the capabilities of our Intelligence Community to carry out its core missions of providing warning and protecting the country.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, denounced those remarks, saying, “It’s nothing more than a scare tactic designed to avoid legal and political accountability and keep Americans in the dark about the administration’s massive lawbreaking.”
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Randall Mikkelsen and Donna Smith; Editing by Patricia Zengerle