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US Congress Begins Recess Without Sending Bush Wiretap Bill

The U.S. Congress has begun a 12-day recess without meeting President Bush's demand to renew a warrantless wiretap law set to expire on Saturday. President Bush is appealing to lawmakers to act when they return to Washington at the end of the month, saying it is a matter of national security. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

President Bush wants lawmakers to send him a bill that will authorize intelligence agencies to monitor, without court warrants, telephone calls between Americans and suspected terrorists overseas. He also wants the bill to include a provision granting immunity from prosecution to telephone companies that took part in the administration's wiretap program following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Some 40 lawsuits are pending against telephone companies for allegedly violating wiretap laws. Speaking at the White House Friday, Mr. Bush said without legal immunity, these firms will be reluctant to take part in the surveillance program in the future.

"These telephone companies that worked collaboratively with us to protect the American people are afraid they are going to get sued," he said. "The American people have got to understand these lawsuits are going to make it harder for us to convince people to help protect you."

Mr. Bush wants the House to pass legislation approved by the Senate this week which includes a provision to grant immunity to phone companies and gives the government the authority to conduct wiretaps without a warrant. House Democrats have raised concerns about protection of privacy rights.

Public opinion polls have shown that in general the American people view Republicans as stronger on national security.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says House Democrats will have to answer constituents back home next week about why they refused to back a measure that he argues is critical to helping protect America.

"I think this will be the biggest story through the recess," he said. "People will be asking about it all over the country, and they [House Democrats] will have to decide how to answer the question."

But many Democrats argue that even if the current law expires, the government could still monitor terror suspects' communications that pass through the United States - with a court warrant. They say Republicans and the White House are creating a crisis to deflect attention away from the stagnant U.S. economy and the unpopular war in Iraq.

"They want something to put in front of the American people to take their minds off the state of our economy, to take their minds off the fact that we are just unfortunately just a few lives away from losing 4,000 soldiers in this war in Iraq," said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat in the Senate. "They want to manufacture a security crisis."

The chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and Judiciary Committees have begun talks to try to resolve the standoff by the time Congress returns from its recess later this month.

Congressman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"We have the beginnings of what can lead to a positive resolution of that problem," he said.

Conyers says he is committed to working with his Republican colleagues and the White House to pass wiretap legislation that protects both civil liberties and national security.