By Susan Jones
CNSNews.com Senior Editor
February 15, 2008
(CNSNews.com) - President Bush and Republicans are blasting House Democratic leaders for taking a week-long President's Day recess without passing a key piece of national security legislation.
The Protect America Act -- which authorizes the U.S. intelligence community to quickly monitor terrorist communications -- will expire at midnight on Saturday.
"If Congress does not act by that time, our ability to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning will be compromised," President Bush warned on Thursday. "It would be a mistake if the Congress were to allow this to happen."
House Democrats are going to allow it to happen, however.
They have refused to take up a bipartisan bill that easily passed the Senate earlier this week, because that bill would not only modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- it also would grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that assisted the government in its warrantless electronic surveillance after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Without this protection, without this liability shield, we may not be able to secure the private sector's cooperation with our intelligence efforts," President Bush warned. That would put the American people at risk, he added.
Two days ago, the House rejected a short-term FISA extension intended to give Democrats more time to work on a permanent fix. Even some Democrats voted against a short-term fix. (See related story).
"Terrorists seeking to harm America and destroy our way of life have been handed a major victory by the Majority's decision to bar intelligence officials from opening any new foreign surveillance cases without needless bureaucratic hurdles," House Republican Leader John Boehner said on Thursday.
"As Members of Congress return to their congressional districts for the 12-day recess, terrorists will continue plotting to attack our nation and our allies. And the American people will have every reason to ask why House Democrats have undermined the ability of our intelligence officials to protect us."
The FISA bill is so important to President Bush, he offered to delay his trip to Africa on Friday if it would help House leaders finish work on the FISA bill.
President Bush says it's clear that the Senate bill would easily pass the House, if only House Democratic leaders would bring it to the floor for a vote.
"Our government has no greater responsibility than getting this work done, and there really is no excuse for letting this critical legislation expire," Bush said. "The House should not leave Washington without passing the Senate bill."
In response to a question, President Bush said he hopes Congress isn't "playing politics," as some Republicans have charged. "I can assure you al Qaeda in their planning isn't thinking about politics. They're thinking about hurting the American people again."
President Bush says the U.S. intelligence community needs to know what America's enemies are saying, planning and thinking. He said electronic surveillance "has been very effective."
President Bush noted that the House passed a short-term FISA fix last summer - the Protect America Act, which expires this weekend. "And if it was necessary last summer, why is it not necessary today?" Bush asked.
Instead of tackling a FISA bill on Thursday, House Democrats further infuriated Republicans by issuing contempt of Congress citations against former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.
The House voted 223 to 32 to hold Miers and Bolten in contempt for refusing to comply with a legally binding subpoena relating to the Bush administration's firing of U.S. attorney-generals.
Pelosi said members of Congress take their "oversight" responsibility "seriously."
Too bad House Democrats don't take national security seriously, House Republican Whip House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said on Thursday.
"I am amazed that while Democrats are eagerly taking political potshots at White House employees, including one who left over a year ago, they refuse to consider bipartisan legislation to safeguard our nation.
"Taking up these contempt citations with only two days until a critical intelligence law expires is as poorly timed as it is poorly reasoned, and it demonstrates the Democrats' cavalier approach to national security."
House Republicans walked off the House floor in protest on Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brushed aside Republican complaints that the nation will suffer if the Protect America Act expires.
"Even if the Protect America Act expires later this week, the American people can be confident that our country remains safe and strong. Every order entered under the law can remain in effect for 12 months from the date it was issued," Pelosi said.
But the Bush administration says without the force of law to protect them, telecommunications companies are increasingly reluctant to cooperate with warrantless surveillance.
losi on Wednesday also slammed Republicans for refusing to support a short-term extension of the bill. Republicans "therefore will bear the responsibility should any adverse national consequences result," Pelosi insisted. (President Bush said it's time for the House to pass a permanent fix, just as the Senate did -- not another patch.)