Bush backing down in FISA fight?
Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday April 1, 2008

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After months of using politically loaded rhetoric and hyping "bogus" terror threats to push Congress to give him the domestic spying bill he's demanding, President Bush seems to be backing down.

The Wall Street Journal reports Tuesday that the White House is softening its hard-line approach to updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The steps toward moderation and compromise come as House Democrats proved last month that they have enough votes to pass a FISA bill that includes more oversight of surveillance efforts within the US than Bush would like and also to block the immunity he has demanded for telecommunications companies that facilitated his warrantless wiretapping program.

Over the two-week spring recess, administration officials contacted Democratic leaders to suggest they were open to compromise on updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "We definitely want to get it done," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "We've had some initial conversations with Congress about the need to get FISA reform done quickly." He added that Mr. Bush still prefers the Senate measure, which the White House negotiated with Senate Democrats. In addition to rejecting immunity for companies, House Democrats want tougher judicial oversight of any eavesdropping effort. People familiar with the matter said the White House has floated ideas to find common ground but hasn't offered a formal compromise proposal. Officials in both parties said judicial oversight might be an easier area for the administration to make concessions.

In brief remarks Monday, Bush continued to push for action on the FISA bill. But he declined to invoke one of the GOP's favorite bogey men and backed away from previous accusations that Democrats were in the pocket of "trial lawyers" in failing to pass a long-term FISA update.

While the White House is striking a "more conciliatory posture," as the Journal says, recognizing their waning clout on national security issues, it remains unclear just what -- if anything -- of substance will come from the reported negotiations between the Bush administration and Congress.

Just before leaving for a two-week recess last month the House narrowly passed a FISA update that included additional oversight Democrats said was needed to protect Americans' constitutional rights; the House bill also did not include a telecom immunity provision. Bush has said it would be unfair to not to grant immunity to phone an internet companies that assisted his wireless surveillance; those companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, are defendants in nearly 40 pending lawsuits alleging they illegally violated customers' privacy.

Prior to the House bill's passage, the White House and its GOP allies in Congress boycotted negotiations over how to update FISA. As recently as Monday, National Journal's subscription-only CongressDaily reported there were no serious discussion between Democrats and Republicans during the two weeks Congress was out of session, before returning Tuesday.

GOP and Democratic aides in the House and Senate said no substantive negotiations occurred during the recess to broker a compromise.

Instead, Senate and House Democrats might be looking to try to come to an agreement between themselves without input from Republicans and the Bush administration, aides said.

Senate GOP aides say the House bill contains provisions similar to ones rejected by the Senate, and that would impede the nation's intelligence agencies. They say the House needs to pass legislation Bush would sign into law.

Whatever the case, the changed mood seems to have heightened Democratic spirits, although plenty of details remain to be worked out. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters Tuesday the White House is “now in a position where they want to talk about a possible compromise,” according to Roll Call (subscription only).

He credited Bush's new willingness to talk to the House's ability to pass its own FISA bill.

“I think, frankly, they were surprised,” he observed.