WASHINGTON—Twice last week the White House gave ground on issues of national security to appease dissident Republican lawmakers, an uncharacteristic retreat for a president who believes that the best defense is a good offense.
First, the Bush administration agreed to brief the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees on its domestic surveillance program, after refusing to do so for years. Then White House officials compromised on civil-liberties concerns that had blocked renewal of the Patriot Act.
The concessions yielded mixed results. The Patriot Act is now virtually assured of passage. But some Republicans still resist the secret domestic-surveillance program and insist on new legislation to resolve questions about whether it's constitutional.
The developments show that the White House can be forced to compromise even on national security when Republicans and Democrats demand it together. But they also demonstrate that if the White House can appease GOP dissidents, Democrats run the risk of being labeled soft on national security and may have to back down.
As both parties head into the 2006 congressional elections, the White House is trying to minimize divisions within the Republican Party. Democrats, meanwhile, are walking a fine line, supporting an aggressive stance against terrorism while calling for civil liberties protections.
For example, when Republicans announced Thursday that they'd brokered a Patriot Act deal with the White House, two of the Democratic Party's leaders, Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard Durbin of Illinois, welcomed the agreement as a positive step, even though many Democrats harbored reservations about it.
But Democrats continue to insist on an investigation into the domestic-spying program—with some calling the president's actions criminal—not least because they enjoy political cover from continued resistance to the program by some Republicans.
The White House welcomes the political fight.
"With an important election coming up, people need to know just how we view the most critical questions of national security," Vice President Dick Cheney told conservative activists last week.
In an interview with Knight Ridder on Friday, Reid took up the challenge.
"No matter what the president says about the American people supporting his absolute power to do whatever he wants in the fight against terrorism, that is not how the American people feel," the Senate Democratic leader said.
Polls indicate that the country is closely divided on the issue. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found last week that 54 percent believe it was proper for the government's secret National Security Agency to monitor calls and e-mails between U.S. residents and suspected terrorists without court warrants. Forty-three percent opposed it.
As a result, some Democrats aren't eager to fight President Bush on national security.
"The White House is defusing these issues among Republicans, but on the other hand they will use it as a wedge against Democrats," said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "This issue will not be played with great subtlety come the fall. It will be, who do you want? The ACLU or the NSA to defend you?"
Last week's congressional hearings kept Washington's focus on the spying program even as some Democrats tried to play up Republican lobbying scandals and cuts in Bush's budget.
Still, Reid said that Democrats wouldn't turn away from the debate over spying.
"People want the war on terrorism to be fought every way that they can. I agree with them," he said. "But there is no reason to do things that appear to be illegal and unconstitutional, as even Republicans say. We have significant support from the Republicans. ... These are real conservative Republicans saying slow down there."
Among the Republicans still raising questions about the program are Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine of Ohio. In the House, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, pressed the White House to give her panel more details about the NSA program.
Even after the briefings, Republican critics didn't back down.
Specter said he'd propose legislation to require the program to be reviewed by the secret federal court that reviews government requests for warrants authorizing domestic spying.
DeWine said the intelligence committees need to continue oversight of the program, but he favors amending the law to let Bush continue.
"In an emergency, I believe the president of the United States has the authority to protect the American people," said DeWine. "After a certain period of time, it is right and prudent for the president to go to Congress to get specific statutory authorization to continue such a program. I think we, in all likelihood, have reached such a time."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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