Sen. Specter Threatens to Block NSA Funds

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 9:56 PM

WASHINGTON -- Noting that Congress holds the power of the purse, a frustrated Senate chairman threatened to try to block money for President Bush's domestic wiretapping program.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Thursday he delivered a message to Bush that cut to the heart of the debate over executive power.

"I made the point that the president doesn't have a blank check," Specter said about their meeting Wednesday. "He didn't choose to engage me on that point."

Without a pledge from Bush to provide more information on the surveillance program, Specter filed an amendment to a spending bill Thursday that amounted to a warning to the White House.

The amendment would enact a "prohibition on use of funds for domestic electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes unless Congress is kept fully and currently informed."

Specter also said he would turn the amendment into a bill and hold hearings.

"Institutionally, the presidency is walking all over Congress at the moment," Specter said. "If we are to maintain our institutional prerogative, that may be the only way we can do it."

Specter made clear that, for now, the threat was just that.

"I'm not prepared to call for the withholding of funds," he told reporters later.

"But I think that it is important to elevate the public consciousness as to what is going on," Specter said. "The four hearings we have had and the way the matter is drifting, in my view, is insufficient to safeguard civil liberties."

The move got the White House's attention, but not its immediate cooperation. Bush has insisted that the program falls within his authority and has refused to allow Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other officials to answer many of Specter's questions.

"The appropriate members of Congress have been and continue to be informed with respect to the Terrorist Surveillance Program," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

"The administration remains confident that a majority of members of Congress continue to recognize the importance of protecting Americans through lawful intelligence activities directed at terrorists," Perino said.

Specter said he hoped to jolt the public's awareness and "an inert Congress ... which has not stood up to the executive branch."

"You have a Congress which candidly is more concerned about re-election and fundraising and who controls the House and the Senate than about asserting constitutional prerogatives," Specter said. "That's not the way it ought to be. These are matters which require some active congressional action and that's what I'm looking toward."

For now, Specter said he will not bother having Gonzales return to the committee "because he won't tell us anything."

Threatening to withhold money from the wiretapping program is not unprecedented.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee tried to attach an amendment to the 2007 intelligence authorization bill to withhold money from the National Security Agency if the White House did not disclose information about the cost of the warrantless surveillance program.

The figure was given to a select group of members who have been briefed more fully on the NSA program, and is classified.

© 2006 The Associated Press