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Behind the deal on NSA wiretaps

Congress sidesteps its battle with Bush over wiretapping, but is adamant about ports.

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After weeks of testy hearings and powerful floor statements, the Republican-controlled Congress appears to be sidestepping a clash with the White House over its domestic surveillance program.

At the same time, it's ratcheting up objections to a White House-backed proposal that would allow a company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to manage six American ports.

That divergence, analysts say, reflects a political dynamic of the war on terror: Neither Congress nor the White House wants to be seen as impeding national security.

"In the wiretapping, despite all the momentum for a more assertive Congress, you're seeing Congress backing down, because there are many Republicans and even Democrats who are afraid of being seen as preventing the president from protecting the nation," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University.

"With the port deal, it's the president who is seen as impeding national security, rather than the Congress. That gives Congress an opportunity to challenge the president - and to do so in a way that makes it look as if they are the ones protecting the public," he adds.

Over strong objections from Democrats, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted along party lines this week to leave the controversial NSA wiretapping program intact, although subject to expanded oversight. A similar accommodation with the Bush administration is under way in the House.

The disclosure of a secret program of eavesdropping without a warrant by the National Security Agency last December looked as if it would have more traction. Early reports suggested that the NSA may have engaged in a broad program of eavesdropping on Americans.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has held two hearings on the NSA program, after Chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania said that he was not convinced that the program, which many legal experts say violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was justified. Senators grilled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on specifics of the program and challenged the White House for not consulting with Congress before bypassing the FISA process.

On Tuesday, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence panel, proposed a compromise worked out with the White House. The agreement creates a new subcommittee that will receive "full briefings" on the program. Another proposal allows surveillance of suspected terrorists for up to 45 days without a warrant.

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