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Tensions Rise Between US Congress, President Over Balance of Powers

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Bush administration's plans to use military tribunals to try suspected terrorists is the latest example of how one branch of the U.S. government can check another. In the second part of his series on the challenges facing Congress, VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on the tensions between the legislative and executive branches of government from Washington.

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush took strong measures to protect the country from further attack.

But in recent years, Bush critics have charged that the administration has too often bypassed Congress and the courts in the name of national security.

Jonathan Turley is a constitutional law expert at George Washington University in Washington.

"This is a president who seems very uncomfortable with sharing power in our type of system," he said. "But that is the job he took. That is the oath he took. We have a system that denies each of the branches enough power to govern alone, but this is a president who does not seem to accept that."

In recent months, even a few Republicans have complained that the Bush White House has often been dismissive of the role of Congress in shaping security policy.

Mr. Bush responds that the nation is at war and will be for a long time and that he will do what is necessary to both protect the American people and their civil liberties.

"My job is to protect you," said Mr. Bush. "My job is to defend the civil liberties of the American people. My job is to act within the confines of the Constitution and the law and that is precisely what I am doing when it comes to making sure we understand the intent of the enemy."

Two formerly bitter political rivals came together recently to urge Congress to vigorously exercise its constitutional duty of checking the power of the executive branch.

Democrat Tom Foley and Republican Newt Gingrich both served as speaker of the House during the 1990s. They discussed the current state of Congress and the presidency at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Former Speaker Gingrich is among several Republicans considering a run for president in 2008. But for now, Gingrich is urging the Republican-led Congress to do a better job of acting as a check on the presidency no matter which party is in power.

"I am a passionate creature of the House," he said. "I believe the House is the center of freedom on the planet. I think the 435 people who shove against each other and argue with each other and learn to respect each other are at the core of freedom. And I think it is important to remember that a presidency is, in a sense, an elected kingship. It is a very dangerous institution to grant too much power to."

Gingrich, from the southern U.S. state of Georgia, was elected to Congress in 1978, the same year as another Republican, from Wyoming, by the name of Dick Cheney.

But Cheney, who now serves as vice president, has a different view of the balance of power between Congress and the executive branch.

"I clearly do believe and have spoken directly about the importance of a strong presidency and that I think there have been times in the past, oftentimes in response to events such as Watergate or the war in Vietnam, where Congress has begun to encroach upon the powers and responsibilities of the president, and that it was important to go back and try to restore that balance," said Mr. Cheney.

Republican Gingrich has found an ally in former rival and Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley.

Foley argues that Congress should assert its constitutional authority as a check on the presidency, especially during wartime.

"I do also think that it is terrifically important that Americans realize that the founding fathers created a separation of powers and that it is not just a lot of congressional interference with a wartime president, but an essential part of the functioning of our government that each branch, each branch has its relative strengths and role, and that for one branch to over dominate, to over control the other two is not healthy for the society," said Mr. Foley.

There are some encouraging signs of greater cooperation between Congress and the White House.

Some lawmakers are working with the administration to set up a system of military tribunals for suspected terrorists that would meet the standard set by the recent Supreme Court ruling.

And the administration is also working with key senators on legislation that would allow legal challenges to a terrorist tracking program that allows the monitoring of international phone calls without a court warrant.