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Coming to the Hill: lots of hearing-room drama

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Indeed, the limits of executive power will be a key theme in the confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, which begin next week. As soon as those hearings end, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by GOP moderate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, will investigate domestic spying by the National Security Administration (NSA).

"When the Bill of Rights is involved, it's time to go into it very deeply," says Senator Specter. "The public has a right to know as much as possible. It's hard to see how a resolution on the use of force can be extended to the conduct involved here."

In a radio address last month, President Bush called the highly classified program of NSA intercepts "critical to saving American lives" - a theme he repeated this weekend in comments to the press.

GOP moderates are teaming up with Democrats to push for a second investigation by the Select Committee on Intelligence. In a Dec. 20 letter, GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for an "immediate inquiry" on whether the president exceeded his authority by authorizing wiretapping without a warrant.

Behind the scenes, a battle is also raging on how aggressively to push the White House on reports of secret CIA prisons abroad. Before breaking for the holidays, both the Senate and House called for the director of national intelligence to submit a classified report to the intelligence committees on secret prisons. At the 11th hour, the provision was stripped out of the FY 2006 Defense Authorization bill, with the understanding that the issue would be taken up directly by the intelligence panels.

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