President lobbied hard Thursday for renewal of Protect America Act, which expires Feb. 16.
Neither the White House nor House Democrats blinked in a standoff over renewal of a controversial eavesdropping law, now on track to expire at midnight Saturday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in response, dubbed such talk fear-mongering. The president has every authority to continue needed eavesdropping under another law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), she said. Moreover, the authorities granted under the temporary surveillance law enacted in August will carry on for a year, she added.
To House Democrats, what's at stake is whether Mr. Bush – and future presidents – are accountable to Congress. "Whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican, they can't act outside the law," said Speaker Pelosi at a press briefing.
The issue is the sharpest confrontation over presidential powers since Democrats took control of Congress last year. "Oversight is an institutional obligation to ensure against abuse of power," Pelosi said in a briefing on Thursday.
At the heart of the dispute is proposed retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that took part in the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance after the 9/11 attacks.
Without liability protection – and facing lawsuits asking for billions of dollars in damages – such companies are going to be "less likely to cooperate" with the government on national-security matters in the future, Bush said Thursday. House Democrats say these companies, along with the president, must be held to the rule of law.
The new 2008 Protect America Act would expand and update the government's ability to monitor technologies such as the Internet and cellphones. If the current law is allowed to lapse, the US will be unable to respond quickly to new terrorist threats, say Republicans and some Democrats, who are urging approval of a bill the Senate passed on Tuesday.