Bush's Prods to Congress on FISA May Work

President Bush has called once again for the House to adopt a Senate bill on foreign intelligence — and by noon, Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was saying the House would take up a bill next week. Whether the bill includes the retroactive legal immunity for phone companies that the president demands was not immediately clear.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Bush used a White House news conference today to send a stern message to House Democrats. He told them to take up an electronic surveillance bill the Senate has already approved and get it passed. The Senate bill includes a provision the president considers essential: retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated in the government's warrantless wiretapping program. The House does not include immunity in its version of the bill.

As NPR's David Welna reports, there are new signs the standoff could be easing.

DAVID WELNA: The Protect America Act which for six months authorized warrantless eavesdropping expired in mid-February. That happened after Republicans unanimously opposed a three-week extension of the law. Almost everyday since, President Bush has publicly excoriated House Democrats for refusing to approve the Senate bill he favors.

Today Mr. Bush portrayed those Democrats as taking it easy, while the country's in peril.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I guess you could be relaxed about all of these if you didn't think there was a true threat to the country. I know there's a threat to the country. And the American people expect our Congress to give the professionals the tools they need.

WELNA: But more than anything, the president seems to want a congressional grant of immunity to phone companies from the more than 40 lawsuits that have been brought against them. Mr. Bush casts such immunity as key to the continued surveillance of suspected terrorists.

Pres. BUSH: How can you listen to the enemy if the phone companies aren't going to participate with you? And are not going to participate if they get sued -let me rephrase - less likely to participate.

WELNA: Later on the House floor, Georgia Republican Tom Price asserted that fellow lawmakers have learned in recent trips to Iraq that the U.S. is in greater danger without a new surveillance law.

Representative TOM PRICE (Republican, Georgia): Some who went just last week and were told by generals in Iraq that not passing the Protect America Act 13 days ago has led to a decrease in their actionable intelligence in Iraq already. Don't let anybody tell you Mr. Speaker that this hasn't put America at greater harm in the last 13 days because it has.

WELNA: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer dismissed Price's warning as fearmongering. Hoyer said the truth is that the underlying Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA still allows the Bush administration to quickly obtain court orders for carrying out surveillance.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): The administration officials have said that within minutes of approval could be granted and under the FISA Act, the administration can act and then get approval after the fact. So I'm not sure of what the generals are talking about.

WELNA: Up until now, Republicans boycotted meetings Democrats organized aimed at working out a compromised in the spy bill standoff. But in a sign that's changing, a top House Republican and the General Council for the director of National Intelligence agreed to meet today behind close doors with Democrats. Majority Leader Hoyer announced the breakthrough on the House floor.

Rep. HOYER: We don't have agreements but as I have said, I'm very hopeful that we will have legislation on the floor next week. I do not expect it to be as the gentleman asked of the same bill that passed the House.

WELNA: House Republican Whip Roy Blunt responded that the key issue remains the phone company's liability.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri; Republican Whip): I believe there's a way to address this issue. We need to find it, and I hope we can.

WELNA: And might that way be simply taking up the Senate's bill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that's not going to happen.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Bush Says He Is Concerned About Slowdown

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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