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Bush's Prods to Congress on FISA May Work

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Bush used a White House news conference today to send a stern message to House Democrats. He told them to take up an electronic surveillance bill the Senate has already approved and get it passed. The Senate bill includes a provision the president considers essential: retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated in the government's warrantless wiretapping program. The House does not include immunity in its version of the bill.

As NPR's David Welna reports, there are new signs the standoff could be easing.

DAVID WELNA: The Protect America Act which for six months authorized warrantless eavesdropping expired in mid-February. That happened after Republicans unanimously opposed a three-week extension of the law. Almost everyday since, President Bush has publicly excoriated House Democrats for refusing to approve the Senate bill he favors.

Today Mr. Bush portrayed those Democrats as taking it easy, while the country's in peril.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I guess you could be relaxed about all of these if you didn't think there was a true threat to the country. I know there's a threat to the country. And the American people expect our Congress to give the professionals the tools they need.

WELNA: But more than anything, the president seems to want a congressional grant of immunity to phone companies from the more than 40 lawsuits that have been brought against them. Mr. Bush casts such immunity as key to the continued surveillance of suspected terrorists.

Pres. BUSH: How can you listen to the enemy if the phone companies aren't going to participate with you? And are not going to participate if they get sued -let me rephrase - less likely to participate.

WELNA: Later on the House floor, Georgia Republican Tom Price asserted that fellow lawmakers have learned in recent trips to Iraq that the U.S. is in greater danger without a new surveillance law.

Representative TOM PRICE (Republican, Georgia): Some who went just last week and were told by generals in Iraq that not passing the Protect America Act 13 days ago has led to a decrease in their actionable intelligence in Iraq already. Don't let anybody tell you Mr. Speaker that this hasn't put America at greater harm in the last 13 days because it has.

WELNA: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer dismissed Price's warning as fearmongering. Hoyer said the truth is that the underlying Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA still allows the Bush administration to quickly obtain court orders for carrying out surveillance.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): The administration officials have said that within minutes of approval could be granted and under the FISA Act, the administration can act and then get approval after the fact. So I'm not sure of what the generals are talking about.

WELNA: Up until now, Republicans boycotted meetings Democrats organized aimed at working out a compromised in the spy bill standoff. But in a sign that's changing, a top House Republican and the General Council for the director of National Intelligence agreed to meet today behind close doors with Democrats. Majority Leader Hoyer announced the breakthrough on the House floor.

Rep. HOYER: We don't have agreements but as I have said, I'm very hopeful that we will have legislation on the floor next week. I do not expect it to be as the gentleman asked of the same bill that passed the House.

WELNA: House Republican Whip Roy Blunt responded that the key issue remains the phone company's liability.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri; Republican Whip): I believe there's a way to address this issue. We need to find it, and I hope we can.

WELNA: And might that way be simply taking up the Senate's bill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that's not going to happen.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.