With Congress seeking more time to finalize a soon-to-expire expansion of the government's electronic spying powers, President Bush on Wednesday issued an ultimatum: No more delays.
In delivered from the Oval Office, the president praised the U.S. Senate's passage on Tuesday of a six-year law that would give the administration more latitude to conduct surveillance without a court order. The controversial measure would also immunize telephone companies from past and future lawsuits accusing them of illegal cooperation with government spy agencies. The whole package is intended to be a more permanent replacement to the so-called Protect America Act, which is scheduled to expire Saturday.
Complicating the prospects of meeting that deadline, however, is lingering disagreement over that legal immunity for corporations. The House of Representatives , which means the two chambers will have to work out their differences before they can send a final bill to the president.
Democratic leaders are now arguing they need more time to do that. Later on Wednesday, the House plans to vote on a bill that would give the chambers 21 more days to deliberate.
But Bush shot down that idea in his speech on Wednesday. He said there's no excuse for the House not to accept the Senate bill, especially since it passed by a vote of 68-29, with members of both parties voting for it (not one Republican voted against that bill).
"The lives of countless Americans depend on our ability to monitor these communications," the president said. "Our intelligence professionals must be able to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they're planning."
Democratic leaders may not back down so easily, though. Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who led the drafting of the House version, have said they're not convinced that the Bush administration made a good case for granting retroactive immunity. (A number of more conservative Democrats, however, do support immunity.)
And after Bush's speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who voted against the final Senate bill and advocated for more time to improve it before passage, said Bush and his Republican allies are bullies who are "more interested in politicizing intelligence than they are about finding real solutions."