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Senate Votes To Expand Warrantless Surveillance

Democrats and the White House are at odds over the scope of surveillance legislation. President Bush said he opposes a congressional recess, scheduled to begin this weekend, unless lawmakers approve
Democrats and the White House are at odds over the scope of surveillance legislation. President Bush said he opposes a congressional recess, scheduled to begin this weekend, unless lawmakers approve "a bill I can sign." (By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)

But Republicans cited a letter from McConnell yesterday afternoon calling the proposal unacceptable and warning that it would prevent him from protecting the country adequately from terrorist attacks. That assertion in turn prompted charges by Democrats that the White House had overruled McConnell in an effort to gain political advantage by painting their party as weak on terrorism.

"We did everything he wants," Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said of McConnell, "and now he says he doesn't like the bill. They didn't move the goal post; they moved the stadium." Pelosi herself accused the Republicans of not caring "about the truth."

White House officials disputed Democrats' account of the tentative deal, and Republicans said McConnell's objections were justified by the Democrats' decision to subject more surveillance to oversight by a special intelligence court than the administration wants.

Adding to the drama was Bush's pressure on lawmakers to stay in Washington until a new measure is passed. The president said he opposes Congress's adjournment for its summer recess this weekend unless it approves "a bill I can sign." Presidents have the power to call Congress into emergency session to consider matters of national importance, although the power is rarely used.

"We have worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats to find a solution," Bush said at a news briefing after a meeting with counterterrorism officials at FBI headquarters yesterday morning. "But we are not going to put our national security at risk."

The administration and congressional Democrats agree on the need to update the FISA statute to reflect the realities of 21st-century telecommunications, including the ever-expanding digital world of e-mail, podcasts and text messages.

White House and intelligence officials have sought a broad overhaul of the act to allow spy agencies to listen in on terrorism suspects quickly, without having to apply for a court order, as is required for surveillance that targets U.S. residents. But Democratic leaders say the administration's proposals could lead to broad searches of phone calls and e-mails by ordinary Americans without judicial review.

"Given the experience of the last few years, we are reluctant to give blanket authority to any president, most especially this one," said a senior Senate aide familiar with negotiations on the surveillance bill.

White House officials complained that Democratic proposals do not give them a crucial tool: the ability to begin wiretapping without having to go to a court. "Every day we don't have [this wiretap authority], we don't know what's going on outside the country," a senior White House official said. "All you need is one communication from, say, Pakistan to Afghanistan that's routed through Seattle that tells you 'I'm about to do a truck bomb in New York City' or 'about to do a truck bomb in Iraq,' and it's too late."

The administration has been negotiating with Democrats for weeks over the issue, but talks intensified as Congress prepared to adjourn this week. Last year, the administration mounted a similar high-pressure campaign on the eve of a congressional recess, to revise legislation governing the interrogation and trial of detainees.

Adding to the urgency for the administration is a secret ruling by a FISA judge earlier this year that declared surveillance of purely foreign communications that pass through a U.S. communications node illegal without a court-approved warrant -- a requirement that intelligence officials have described as unacceptably burdensome.

Staff writers Josh White and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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