Bush, House Democrats Face Off on Wiretapping Bill President Bush says the House needs to finish a bill governing U.S. eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists. The current law, the Protect America Act, expires this weekend, and the president says he won't approve another extension of it.
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Bush, House Democrats Face Off on Wiretapping Bill

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Bush, House Democrats Face Off on Wiretapping Bill

Bush, House Democrats Face Off on Wiretapping Bill

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MICHELE NORRIS: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There's a politically charged showdown today between President Bush and House Democrats. The president is insisting that Congress send him a bill to expand wiretapping powers before a temporary law expires on Saturday.

The Senate passed its version of the legislation this week but it's at odds with bill the House passed three months ago. Now, House Democrats want three more weeks to settle those differences.

At the White House today, President Bush said no to that.

GEORGE W: I urge congressional leaders to let the will of the House and the American people prevail and vote on the Senate bill before adjourning for their recess. Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence. Failure to act will also make the private sector less willing to help us protect the country - and this is unacceptable.

BLOCK: NPR's David Welna joins us from the Capitol.

And, David, what is it exactly that the president says he so urgently needs from the Congress right now?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Melissa, what the president really wants is a long-term extension of the temporary powers the Congress granted the executive branch last summer which basically permit the kind of warrantless wiretapping his administration had secretly carried out for five years until The New York Times revealed what was going on.

The Senate on Tuesday passed the bill granting such powers for the next six years. And that bill also contains the other thing that the president keenly wants and which isn't in the law that expires Saturday. And that's a provision that gives legal immunity to telecommunications companies that are being sued for cooperating in the warrantless wiretapping.

So, Melissa, the president really did get what he wanted from the Senate.

BLOCK: But not from the House, and the House is balking at taking that Senate bill and just approving that again.

WELNA: Right. Because the House passed its own extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - what's known as FISA - back in November and it intentionally did not include in it any immunity for the telecommunications firms. And that's because the House Democrats accuse the Bush administration of not letting them see the documents that were used to justify the warrantless wiretapping.

And what's more, they refused to simply take the Senate-passed bill with immunity and hold the vote on it. That bill would likely pass if they did but they insist on more time now to merge the two bills like three weeks more time, but President Bush did go along with a 15-day extension of the current law so that the Senate could finish its bill but he now says he'll veto any further extension.

And House Republicans tried to turn up the heat for a vote on this bill this afternoon by staging a dramatic mass walkout from the House chamber.

BLOCK: Walking right out - out of the Capitol itself?

WELNA: They walked straight out.

BLOCK: Why is it, David, that things have come right down to the wire on the deadline - coming up to the deadline of this bill on Saturday?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think, there's almost a general rule in Congress that there's nothing like a drop-dead deadline for getting people to go along with things that they might otherwise have second thoughts about. And that's basically what happened last August with a law that's now expiring. It was hastily passed as lawmakers were leaving town amidst warnings that if they passed it, the nation would be left more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

And we're hearing the same warnings today from the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called that fear mongering. Democrats say it's Republicans who intentionally forced this right up to the brink by stalling legislation for weeks in the Senate. Only this time it looks like House Democrats are willing to call the president's bluff if indeed that's what it is.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's David Welna at the Capitol.

David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome.

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