At Odds Again on Wiretapping

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

President Bush stands with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell in the Oval Room at the White House as he discusses the "Protect America Act"

The skeptics said it would never happen, but six and a half years after 9/11, congressional Democrats have stood their ground against President Bush in a debate pitting civil liberties against national security. On Thursday, House Democrats refused to hold a vote on a Senate-approved bill that would permanently expand the government's eavesdropping authority and grant immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government monitor conversations in the past. With a stopgap law expiring Saturday, the showdown has set up a political battle likely to play out through the November elections — if both sides refuse to back down.

The White House charges that by allowing the law to lapse, the Democrats are weakening America's defenses against terrorism. "The terrorist threats to our nation are very real and grave, and inaction by the House in the face of these risks is unacceptable," says White House spokesperson Dana Perino. Democrats counter that many of the authorizations in the stopgap law will remain in effect for another year after it expires. "They've manufactured a crisis where none exists," says Jim Manely, spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid. More than anything, though, the battle is a test of whether the country has moved past the "whatever-it-takes" politics of national security that followed 9/11.

So far it looks like both parties are happy to test the question. They agree that compromise is possible on the actual wiretapping authorizations, in particular giving spies the right to listen in on foreign communications passing through the U.S. But the White House says it is unwilling to negotiate middle ground on the issue of retroactive immunity for the telecoms. The Democrats have offered two compromises: a court review of the issue to see if retroactive immunity is warranted, and a transfer of liability for past lawbreaking from the telecoms to the government. The Senate rejected both, and 21 House Democrats urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do the same, but she and other Democratic leaders are unwilling to back down.

One senior Senate Democratic aide says the White House has painted itself in a corner on immunity. "The White House overplayed their hand. They just assumed we'd cave because we always do cave, and we always have caved. Now we're not. How about that?" But for Republicans who were looking for help in swing districts, a permanent lapse in the expanded wiretapping authority may be an election-campaign godsend.

Democrats say they'll be working on the issue during next week's recess. But the battle has been so starkly refined into one over immunity that it's hard to see how either side can back down. That means the election season will feature debates about whether its okay to break the law in order to wage war on terrorism. Are Democrats sure that's a fight they want to have? "There certainly is polling" supporting the party's position, says the senior Senate Democratic aide. "But that's not what people rely on; they rely on their guts. The President has played this fear card one too many times." As things stand, November will be the test of that premise.