House Republicans today walked out of the chamber en masse to protest the Democratic leaders’ refusal to revisit an update of the nation’s domestic wiretapping rules before the current law expires at midnight tomorrow.
Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio led the walkout, saying Democrats were playing political games by calling a vote on contempt charges against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers in the 2006 firing of U.S. attorneys.
Republicans say that the wiretapping law should be addressed first and is paramount to national security must be not be allowed to expire.
But House Democrats say they are willing to let the surveillance law lapse Saturday without replacement legislation rather than rush through a bill at the last minute.
The House yesterday rejected a Democratic proposal for a temporary 21-day extension to the nation’s domestic wiretapping laws, setting up a showdown with President Bush, who is insisting on a permanent fix before the current extension expires in two days.
The biggest dispute is a Republican demand to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for their participation in a domestic spying program the president began shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The secret program circumvented a court that oversees such activities.
President Bush supports a Senate bill passed Tuesday that includes the immunity provision, saying it’s necessary because phone companies should not be penalized for helping defend the nation against terrorism. The House passed its own version late last year that doesn’t include the immunity provision.
In todays vote, the House voted 223-32 to hold Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers in contempt, setting up a possible legal showdown with the Bush administration.
The White House says the roles of Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers in the attorney firings are protected under executive privilege. Democrats disagree, sayings the president is constitutionally bound to allow the two to testify as party of a Congressional inquiry.
The White House said the Justice Department will not ask the U.S. Attorney to pursue the House contempt charge.
White House counsel Fred Fielding has agreed to make officials and documents available behind closed doors and off the record, but the House Judiciary Committee rejected the offer as inadequate.
The original 1978 FISA law requires the government to obtain a warrant from a special court to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance in the U.S. But changes in telecommunications technology have forced the government to sometimes obtain warrants to spy abroad, because foreign phone calls and other electronic communications now often travel through U.S. networks.
Congress in August passed a six-month FISA extension after Democrats and Republicans failed to reach a compromise on the immunity provision. The extension was to expire Feb. 1, but Congress last month agreed to another 15-day extension.