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GOP Unease Spreads to Security Issues
If so, the moment may still last a while longer. Much of the dialogue in Washington right now centers on security disputes pitting Republicans against Republicans.
The Senate voted yesterday to clear the way for final passage today of a compromise version of the Patriot Act after a handful of Republicans in recent months insisted on changes to the law. But Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he was still dissatisfied with the additional checks on law enforcement and introduced a new bill to set further restrictions on the collection of certain information in terrorism investigations without court orders.
Specter's committee also held another hearing yesterday into the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance authorized by Bush. Specter and other Republicans are drafting legislation to establish congressional or court oversight of the eavesdropping.
And it was clear yesterday that a fresh 45-day review of the ports deal might not satisfy GOP critics. Two Senate committees grilled administration officials and the chief operating officer of the Dubai company at the center of the dispute. A bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Norm Coleman (Minn.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), is scheduled to meet today to discuss legislation giving Congress final say over the deal.
Beyond the politics, several of the disputes are about institutional prerogatives, the sort of natural executive-legislative tension that was subsumed in Bush's first term after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Republican lawmakers deferred to the president.
James B. Steinberg, who was President Bill Clinton's deputy national security adviser, said Bush "just overstepped" and alienated allies by not involving Congress in the matter.
"Even if you're a Republican member of Congress, you don't buy the exaggerated view of the unified executive theory, in which the only part of the Constitution that matters is Article II," on presidential power, said Steinberg, now dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. "If you want them to be in on the landing, you have to have people there for the takeoff."
Rep. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.), who has emerged as one of the most active players on the NSA issue, noted that she has taken on the administration on a number of national security issues over the past few years but is now joined by more fellow Republicans. She said that owes more to administration mishandling than to a changing mood on Capitol Hill.
"We all agree that there has to be a single leader from the White House leading the armed forces," Wilson said. But "Congress has the responsibility to exercise oversight and ask questions," she said, "and I think you're seeing more members of Congress willing to do that."