Bush's Final Year

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 2, 2008; 12:38 PM

As President Bush begins his final year in office, the White House is aiming for one last major domestic legislative triumph: permanent expansion of government spy powers, including retroactive immunity for the telecom companies that assisted in warrantless surveillance.

In an impromptu briefing aboard Air Force One, as Bush returned to Washington from his Texas vacation yesterday, White House counselor Ed Gillespie told reporters that an administration-supported bill to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is Bush's top priority.

"FISA is front and center," Gillespie said, according to a pool report from New York Times White House correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg. "If it is allowed to lapse we will be less safe as a country."

When Congress caved to White House pressure in August, it authorized continued warrantless eavesdropping only until Feb. 1. Now, the White House wants the move made permanent. "Terrorists do not work on six month time frames," Gillespie said.

Senate Democrats were poised to once again give Bush everything he wanted last month, until the threat of a filibuster by Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd led Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid to postpone a vote until late January.

Why is this such a big deal to the White House? Eric Lichtblau, James Risen and Scott Shane explained in the New York Times last month: "At stake is the federal government's extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.

"The N.S.A.'s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure."

In short, it's a historic battle over the future of the country as a surveillance state.

Beyond FISA

Beyond FISA, Bush's domestic priorities appear to be the kind his advisors once dismissed as "small ball."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's final-year agenda is a stripped-down list of what he can realistically hope to get done, since the clout he once touted is fading awa. . . .

"Long gone are the big ideas of Social Security and immigration reform, which collapsed on Capitol Hill. His final State of the Union speech in late January is expected to reflect today's policy reality, eschewing new initiatives in favor of unfinished proposals."

Amy Gardner writes in The Washington Post that Bush's agenda -- which she calls "ambitious" -- includes "tackling the mortgage lending crisis and securing more money from Congress for Iraq.

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