Friday, February 10, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said yesterday that House Republicans can accept the USA Patriot Act deal struck Thursday, and key Senate Democrats also endorsed the proposed changes as a good compromise.

“I think they were enough to make sure we can protect the American people,” Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, told reporters as House Republicans were meeting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for their annual retreat.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who in December led a filibuster of the bill and boasted he had “killed” the last version, supports the new compromise, a spokesman for the Nevada Democrat said.

The announcements mean the bill, which extends the USA Patriot Act while adding a few new checks, is likely to clear final legislative hurdles and be sent to President Bush for his signature.

The House Republicans met with Mr. Bush for nearly two hours yesterday, most of it behind closed doors, to talk about their agenda and strategy going into November’s congressional elections. During the meeting, Mr. Bush repeated his pledge to catch terrorists “dead or alive.”

“Laura doesn’t like me saying this, but I believe we do need to find al Qaeda, dead or alive,” he said, according to a participant.

He also defended the National Security Agency surveillance program, telling the Republicans: “I wake up every morning thinking about a future attack and, therefore, a lot of my thinking and a lot of the decisions I make are based upon the attack that hurt us.”

After weeks of rejecting calls for greater congressional oversight, Mr. Bush has agreed to allow briefings for all members of the intelligence committees. Previously just the “gang of eight” — the top Republican and Democrat on the House and Senate intelligence committees, as well as the Republican and Democrat leaders in each chamber — were briefed.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican and a member of the House intelligence committee who had sought disclosure to the committee, stood up and thanked the president.

Mr. Hastert told reporters the expansion of the briefings was the right step, and when asked whether Congress would take action to rein in the activities, he defended them.

“It really comes down to what we do to keep this country safe,” he said. “Somebody in this country, whether it is a foreign national or a citizen, talking to al Qaeda, somebody ought to know about it and why it is happening.”

Republicans described the session as very open and extremely friendly. Rep. John T. Doolittle, California Republican, said Mr. Bush delivered “the equivalent of a post-graduate seminar on world diplomacy.”

The president also defended the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, which took effect at the beginning of the year, saying there were bound to be some glitches in a program that has signed up 26 million seniors.

Mr. Bush tossed in a number of jokes, including several at his own expense: “If any of you are ever president, make sure you surround yourself with smart, capable people — people smarter than you; in my case, it wasn’t all that hard to find.”

He also said he will not be swayed by low approval ratings.

“If I worried about the polls, I’d be laying on the ground in the fetal position,” Mr. Bush said.

Despite the polls, House Republicans said there’s no effort to try to separate themselves from him.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said among House Republicans Mr. Bush is “pretty well sought-after” to campaign in their districts.

He said some Republicans, such as Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, may not want to have Mr. Bush campaign in their district, but many Southern Democrats don’t want House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, campaigning for them.

“I think it’s a nice trade-off,” he said.

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