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Under fire, Democrats seek end to spy law feud

Bush says congressional leaders are endangering Americans by letting a wiretap law expire. His political foes defend the inaction and say they're searching for compromise.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have already stood up to President Bush this week, refusing to approve a controversial Senate bill that would immunize telephone companies from lawsuits alleging illegal spying. Now they're being forced to defend their actions against those who contend that inaction endangers national security--and who wonder what happens next.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Friday afternoon, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) have already begun trying to resolve what has become a very public disagreement. The leaders said they met with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) earlier that day to begin discussing how to work out a protracted clash over updates to electronic surveillance law that the Bush administration argues are necessary to keep Americans safe from terrorist threats.

Both the House and Senate are currently beginning a 12-day recess, which means any serious votes won't occur until they return. But between now and then, Hoyer said he's trying to loop Republicans into the discussions, with the hope that some work toward a compromise will occur during each day of the break.

The major sticking point, of course, is whether the final bill should grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that may have assisted the National Security Agency in conducting warrantless wiretaps in violation of federal law. A bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday would grant such protection, but a version passed by the House in November would not.

Hoyer and the others refused to divulge any details about what a final product might look like--and how it would resolve the key, divisive question of "retroactive" immunity for telephone companies.

Reyes, for his part, said he was keeping an "open mind" about immunity but rejected assertions made by Bush and other Republican leaders that failure to immunize telephone companies from legal action would endanger Americans' security.

Meanwhile, Bush isn't letting up on his dire warnings that failure to extend and expand electronic surveillance law will spell doom for Americans.

After emerging from a Friday morning meeting with congressional Republican leaders, he again berated House Democrats for their failure to pass the Senate bill before a temporary expansion of the spy law, called the Protect America Act, expires Saturday.

"By blocking this piece of legislation our country is more in danger of an attack," Bush said, according to a transcript of his remarks. "By not giving the professionals the tools they need, it's going to be a lot harder to do the job we need to be able to defend America."

The trio of House Democratic leaders was equally unwilling to retreat on their entrenched position, which is that such warnings from Republican leaders are bogus.

They argued that existing surveillance law already permits intelligence agents to obtain court orders--even 72 hours after eavesdropping begins in an emergency situation--and that court orders issued under the expiring Protect America Act are good for up to a year, meaning snooping authorized under that law can continue without interruption while congressional leaders work out a more lasting compromise solution.

This week's unrelenting war of press releases and rhetoric about the surveillance bill, which continued on Friday, sure doesn't bode well for eventual peacemaking between the parties. Still, the Democratic leaders maintained they'll be able to find support for a final bill, whatever it ends up looking like, from both chambers and from the as-yet unamused president.