Bush Presses Lawmakers to Pass Spy Bill

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President Bush urged House lawmakers on Thursday to adopt an intelligence bill that would ease the way for wiretapping suspected terrorists and grant retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies that help the government.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush had a thing or two to tell Congress today, and he used a news conference to do it. To assembled reporters, he urged lawmakers in the House to adopt a foreign intelligence bill already passed by the Senate. That bill would ease the way for government wiretapping of suspected terrorists and grant legal immunity to phone companies that have cooperated with warrantless wiretapping in the past. Joining us now is NPR's Brian Naylor to talk about this. Good morning.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been hearing the drum beat on the Foreign Intelligence Bill ever since the temporary law expired 12 days ago. Where does it stand now? What's going on?

NAYLOR: Well, what's going on is the president is continuing to try to pressure Democratic Congressional leaders to give him the bill that he wants. The Senate and House have each passed different measures that would renew the FISA law which gives the government the authority to spy on the phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists. But they passed, as I say, different bills. The president wants Congress to adopt the Senate bill, which gives immunity to phone companies that are facing lawsuits charging they improperly gave information to the government after the 9-11 attacks. The president dismissed these lawsuits and the lawyers who brought them, saying they're trying to get in on what he called a financial gravy train. And he said the phone companies were being asked to provide information by the government, and that they won't cooperate in the future if they can be sued for doing so.

MONTAGNE: And the president also discussed the economy. We have a short clip here of some of what he said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I don't think we're headed to a recession, but no question we're in a slow down. I mean, that's why we acted, and acted strongly, with over $150 billion worth of pro-growth economic incentives.

MONTAGNE: And what, then, does the president want from Congress?

NAYLOR: Well, a couple of things. He wants them to approve measures aimed at helping homeowners facing foreclosure and some tax benefits for homebuilders, but he doesn't a bill in the Senate that would allow bankruptcy court judges to change the terms of mortgages for homeowners facing foreclosure. And he also seemed to be telling Congress to hold off on passing another stimulus bill until we know if their first one is working. And, of course, he also put in a pitch to make - for Congress to make permanent his tax cuts, but that's something that they're not going to do.

MONTAGNE: And the president also aimed comments on the war in Iraq to lawmakers who've criticized his policies there. Let's take a listen to a bit of that.

Pres. BUSH: It's interesting that many of the same people who once accused me of refusing to acknowledge setbacks in Iraq now are the ones who are refusing to acknowledge progress in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Brian, where's the debate headed in Congress?

NAYLOR: The Senate for the past couple of days has been debating a measure that calls for the withdrawal of most US forces from Iraq in four months. That bill isn't going to pass. But there's going to be another fight down the road not too far when the president presents his proposal for funding the troops. Congress is going to be asked to provide more money than they're going to want, and we'll see this debate rekindled.

MONTAGNE: And, finally, the president was asked several times about the presidential campaign.

NAYLOR: Yeah. You know, he said - he kept saying, well, I'm not going to get involved in this, but he did. And he was very critical of positions taken by Democratic Senator Barack Obama in particular. In a debate the other night, Obama said - and, you know, I'm paraphrasing - he said he would remove troops from Iraq unless there was evidence al-Qaida was trying to build a base there. Well, the president said that's just what al-Qaida has been trying to do for the last four years. He also criticized the notion the US should meet with its adversaries, such as the new leader in Cuba, Raul Castro. The president said that would give stature to a regime that has abused human rights. That's something Obama has said that he would be willing to consider. Of course, the president then went on to defend his upcoming meeting with China's leader.

MONTAGNE: Brian, thanks very much.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Brian Naylor is speaking to us from the Capitol about President Bush's recent press conference just early this morning. This is NPR News.

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Bush Says He Is Concerned About Slowdown

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President Bush on Thursday said he is concerned about the slowdown in the U.S. economy, but he maintained the country is not in a recession.

"I'm concerned about the economy because I'm concerned about working Americans," he said during a White House news conference. "There's no question the economy has slowed down. I don't think we're headed into a recession."

Bush said his administration acted quickly to stimulate the economy with a pro-growth package that will have refund checks going out to consumers in May. The plan sends rebates ranging from $300 to $1,200 to millions of people and gives tax incentives to businesses.

"We'll see the effects of this pro-growth package," Bush said.

The president also urged Congress to pass a law that makes it easier for the government to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects. He said the government must have the ability to quickly and effectively monitor the telephone conversations and e-mails of terror suspects.

The president said Congress should protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits when they cooperate with the government efforts. He said Congress should give companies legal immunity for helping the government eavesdrop after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Without the cooperation of the private sector we cannot protect our country from terrorist attacks," Bush said.

The president wants Congress to renew a temporary law that expired earlier this month. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the measure, which would continue authorization of a program that lets the government listen in on the phone calls of suspected terrorists and view their e-mails.

Bush wants the House to adopt the version passed by the Senate. That bill gives retroactive immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that provided information to the government after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The president also said Congress should act on fully funding the war in Iraq, where he said his troop surge has paid off with decreased deaths among U.S. soldiers and Marines and Iraqi civilians. He said the diminished violence has encouraged stability and enabled the Iraqi government to engage in reconciliation efforts.

"What they need to do is to stand by our fine men and women in uniform and stand by our troops," he said.

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