WASHINGTON — In two political showdowns Thursday, Democrats in the House of Representatives refused to bow to presidential pressure to pass a broad surveillance law and voted to hold two Bush aides in contempt of Congress.
Early in the day, President Bush said he'd delay his trip to Africa to convince the House to approve a Senate-passed bill that would give the government authority to monitor e-mails and phone calls.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to hold a vote, saying the House needed more time, and Bush put his trip back on schedule for a Friday departure.
Democrats and Republicans in the House also tangled over whether to hold former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and current Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in contempt for refusing to cooperate with an inquiry into whether nine U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons.
Democrats prevailed 223-32 in a party-line vote after Republicans walked out in protest, saying the House should be voting on the surveillance bill instead of what Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called a "fishing expedition."
The White House has said that the Justice Department won't act on the criminal contempt request, setting up what's expected to be a long court battle.
Pelosi said that she wanted to work with the White House on the surveillance bill, but that the House needs more time to find ways to protect Americans' civil liberties.
"The president believes he has the inherent authority from the Constitution to do whatever he wishes, not necessarily under the law. We respectfully disagree," she said.
The Senate bill is an update of a law that's due to expire Friday night. Existing surveillance could continue for a year after the law expires.
Bush said the Senate bill would allow the intelligence community to "effectively monitor those seeking to harm our people" and that the House should pass it so he could sign it before he departs.
"Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities, and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence. Failure to act would also make the private sector less willing to help us protect the country, and this is unacceptable," Bush said.
Congress passed the Protect America Act last August, giving the government broader surveillance powers. It was intended to remain in effect only for six months, giving Democrats time to revise it.
Intelligence officials can continue to eavesdrop on approved targets for a year after the law expires. The government also can get an order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to start new surveillance.
The Senate's revision of the Protect America Act also would grant immunity to telecommunications companies that complied with the administration's requests for surveillance without court approval after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The House didn't include the retroactive immunity provision in its version of the bill, which passed in November.
The White House said in a statement that expiration of the law would mean that the attorney general and the director of national intelligence would be "stripped of the power to authorize new certifications against foreign intelligence targets, including international terrorists, abroad."
The statement also said the government wouldn't be able to "compel the assistance of a private company not already helping us."
Pelosi said that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gave the government the necessary authority to continue to collect intelligence after the temporary measure expires.
The House voted to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt for refusing to testify in last year's investigation of the firing of the nine U.S. attorneys.
The investigation has produced suspicions but no proof that the ousted prosecutors were targeted because they rebuffed Republican demands that they bring weak voter-fraud cases against Democrats or because they mounted corruption investigations of Republicans.
The vote authorized the House Judiciary Committee to ask a court to order Miers and Bolten to testify if the Justice Department fails to issue criminal contempt citations.
The administration has denied any wrongdoing, and maintains that Congress has no compelling interest to see internal White House deliberations on the matter. Democrats said they recognize the president's right to assert executive privilege, but maintain that Bush overreached illegally.
After the vote, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., said he hoped the White House would negotiate a deal to avoid the intervention of the courts. If not, Conyers maintained, Democrats would win in court.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008