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Bush says he will delay trip if needed to push Congress to pass terror surveillance law
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    WASHINGTON — President Bush said Thursday he’ll delay his trip to Africa if necessary to get the House to finish a bill governing U.S. eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists.
    The president and House Democrats are engaged in a game of political brinkmanship, each blaming the other for the pending expiration of a key intelligence law. The president argued that the House has plenty of time to pass a bill.
    ‘‘If we have to delay (the trip), we’ll delay,’’ said Bush, who is scheduled to leave for Africa Friday afternoon.
    Bush is backing the Senate-passed bill, which includes retroactive protection from lawsuits that telecommunications companies are facing because they cooperated with government eavesdropping following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The House has not passed that measure, and the law expires at midnight Saturday. The House bill also does not provide immunity from lawsuits for the telecommunications companies.
    ‘‘There is really no excuse for letting this critical legislation expire,’’ Bush said, his second statement on the bill at the White House in two days.
    Rather than wait for the House and Senate to negotiate differences in their versions of the intelligence legislation, Bush wants a rubber-stamp of the Senate bill so he can sign it into law immediately. Bush has said he will not approve another extension, and House Republicans helped defeat a 21-day extension of the law on Thursday.
    Bush said that ‘‘it would be a mistake’’ if Congress allowed the law to expire. ‘‘Members of Congress knew all along that this deadline was approaching. They set it themselves. They’ve had more than six months to discuss and deliberate. And now they must act.’’
    He denied claims that the issue had turned into a political game.
    ‘‘I certainly hope not,’’ Bush said. ‘‘I can assure you that al-Qaida in their planning isn’t thinking about politics, they are thinking about hurting the American people again.’’
    ‘‘I guess you got to come to the conclusion that there’s a threat to America, or not a threat,’’ Bush said. ‘‘I mean, evidently, some people just don’t feel that sense of urgency. I do. And the reason I do is I firmly believe that there are still people out there who would do us harm.’’
    Expiration of the current Protect America Act would not mean an immediate end to wiretapping. Existing surveillance could continue under the law for a year from when it began — at least until August. Any new surveillance the government wants to institute could be implemented under underlying FISA rules, which may require warrants from the secret court.
    But the White House says that if the law expires, the attorney general and the director of national intelligence would be stripped of the power to authorize new certifications against foreign intelligence targets, including international terrorists abroad. The White House says the government would be unable to compel the assistance of private companies, which are not assisting the government now but whose assistance may be needed in the future, to collect foreign intelligence information about terrorists and other foreign threats.
    ‘‘Without this liability shield, we may not be able to secure the private sector’s cooperation. ... and that of course would put the American people at risk,’’ Bush said.
    ‘‘Clearly, there will be a gap. And of course, we won’t be able to assess that gap until the time,’’ he added.
    House Democratic officials said they anticipate being characterized by the White House and Republicans as being soft on terrorism. They insist the expiration of the Protect America Act will have no immediate negative effect.
    ‘‘Because the orders will not expire until August and because we just received the Senate bill on Tuesday, the course will now be to move to a conference with the Senate and get the best bill that protects the country and our Constitution,’’ a House Democratic official said on the condition his name not be used because he was discussing internal Democratic plans.

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