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Senate Republicans block investigation into eavesdropping

WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans blocked an investigation into President Bush's secret domestic spying program on Tuesday, but agreed to expand congressional oversight of the surveillance system in the future.

At the same time, a group of four Senate Republicans began circulating legislation that would restrict the administration's ability to eavesdrop on U.S. residents without court approval.

The legislation would require the administration to obtain warrants to eavesdrop on U.S. residents unless the attorney general certified to House and Senate intelligence subcommittees that seeking court approval would hurt intelligence gathering.

The legislation was sponsored by Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Olympia Snowe of Maine, all Republicans.

The legislation emerged as the Senate Intelligence Committee voted behind closed doors to block a Democratic demand for a full investigation into the program. The surveillance, which is carried out by the National Security Agency, tracks communications between al-Qaida suspects overseas and U.S. residents, according to the administration.

Democrats complained that committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was doing the White House's bidding by pushing for less oversight.

But Roberts, in an interview with Knight Ridder, said he had to persuade the White House to accept his proposal for a sub-panel of his committee to receive detailed briefings about operations of the secret program. Until now, the White House has occasionally briefed only eight members of Congress—the four Republican and Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate and the chairmen and vice chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

"My message to the White House was that the status quo was not satisfactory," Roberts said. "They were pretty intransigent. I kept saying, `You're not facing reality.'"

Roberts said he argued that if the White House didn't yield on Congress' assertion of greater oversight authority, Democrats would succeed in getting a broader investigation that could result in subpoenas, claims of executive privilege and, potentially, a court clash between Congress and the White House.

"To save the program and the efficacy of the program was my number one goal," Roberts said. "I had to convince the White House to move off of dead center and brief more members and bring them into the fold."

Roberts has been the object of scathing attacks from Democrats, who've accused him of yielding to the White House time and again on issues of intelligence and national security.

Roberts said he supports the efforts by DeWine, Hagel, Snowe and Graham, but he said the subcommittee he devised must first learn more about the surveillance program before the legislation will be ready for the Senate floor. The subcommittee would consist of four of the eight Republicans on the intelligence committee and three of the seven Democrats. Roberts said he would ask on Wednesday for an administration briefing for the panel.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the White House is "generally OK with the approach" of the proposed legislation.

"We believe it is generally sound," she said. "We do remain committed to not doing anything that would undermine the program capabilities and the president's authorities."

The House of Representatives hasn't moved as aggressively on legislation, but the intelligence committee there agreed last week to set up a sub-panel to get more details about the program.

Tensions remain between Republican lawmakers and the administration over the spying program, however.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that he might try to withhold funds for the surveillance program if the administration didn't give his committee more information about it. Specter has extra clout because he also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"We're having quite a time in getting responses to questions as to what has happened with the electronic surveillance program," Specter said at an appropriations committee hearing. "I want to put the administration on notice and this committee on notice that I may be looking for an amendment to limit funding as to the electronic surveillance program—which is the power of the purse—if we can't get an answer in any other way."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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