By Dan Eggen and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 14, 2008
Democratic leaders are preparing to launch the second session of the 110th Congress this week with a partisan shot, hints of conciliation and some serious procrastination.
In its first couple of weeks after it returns tomorrow, the House is likely to take up contempt-of-Congress resolutions against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers for their refusal to appear before Congress for questioning about the 2006 removal of nine U.S. attorneys, Democratic leadership aides said.
In the Senate, which is not scheduled to return until Jan. 22, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has made it clear that he is likely to seek at least a one-month delay in considering changes to the law governing surveillance in terrorism and intelligence cases. The White House is pushing hard to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that assisted government surveillance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
At the same time, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol are appealing to President Bush for help on a bipartisan package of tax cuts and other measures designed to stimulate the economy, which many say is on the brink of recession, if it is not already in one.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto decried the move toward a contempt vote in the House and said the administration is eager to work with Democrats on issues including the surveillance law and economic stimulus measures.
"It hasn't always been pretty, but we have been able to find ways to get some things done with Congress" over the past year, Fratto said. "It is a problem that Congress hasn't gotten their work done, but we'd like to help them."
Congress also must act quickly on last year's defense policy bill, which Bush vetoed during the holiday break over a provision that he said would have allowed the victims of terrorism to sue the government of Iraq. Democratic leaders are likely to find a quick fix and pass the bill again, ensuring that members of the armed services receive a promised pay increase.
Before they start haggling over most other issues, however, lawmakers must decide how to handle the conflict over changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which were approved under heavy administration pressure in August but expire Feb. 1.
The measures expanded the government's ability to intercept the communications of intelligence targets overseas without court oversight. The White House and Republican leaders want to make those changes permanent while adding language that would grant telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits for helping the government conduct wiretaps and other clandestine surveillance.
The issue has set off a row between liberal and moderate Democrats. The House passed legislation in December that would require more court oversight of foreign surveillance and would not provide telecom immunity.
But Senate Democrats are divided and do not have enough votes to thwart a GOP filibuster or overturn a veto, which the White House has threatened. Reid has indicated that he is likely to push for a one-month extension of the existing law to give Congress and the White House time to work out a compromise, and that he could accept the immunity provision.
But that measure is strongly opposed by other top Democrats in the Senate, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.). Lawmakers from both parties also have suggested shifting the target of lawsuits from the phone companies to the federal government.
The White House does not see any need for delay on a new surveillance package, Fratto said. It supports legislation that includes the immunity provision.
With the presidential campaign in the background, lawmakers are weighing the potential impact of new surveillance measures in an election year. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said Reid and other Democrats will push for measures "to assure accountability for Bush administration officials who may have circumvented the law."
The American Civil Liberties Union strongly opposes immunity. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington office, said, "The basic message coming out of this is that it's utter chaos up there."
"They don't know what they want to do," Fredrickson said, referring to Democrats. "They've put themselves back in a position where they're compelled to pass some kind of extension. . . . It just shows a total lack of leadership."