The House of Representatives has met in a rare closed session to consider proposed revisions to foreign intelligence surveillance law, the subject of continuing conflict between President Bush and Democrats. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, there were emotional exchanges about the unusual meeting, which came after President Bush repeated his opposition to Democratic legislation he asserts would harm U.S. security against possible new terrorist attacks.
On only three other occasions in recent times - 1979, 1980, and 1983 - has the House held what is called a "secret session", in which the chamber undergoes a security sweep and is closed to the public and media while lawmakers discuss sensitive issues.
This time it was requested by minority Republicans, who with President Bush oppose a Democratic measure to revise existing law on electronic surveillance aimed at helping the U.S. prevent further terrorist attacks.
But many Democrats expressed discomfort, questioning exactly what would be discussed in the closed session and voicing suspicion at Republican motives for making the request just before a two-week recess.
Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett was one of those challenging reasoning for the unusual session.
"I would not want to limit the ability of anyone to debate any aspect of this. If their points are clear and justified, I would want them to do that in front of the American people and not in a secret session unless it in some way compromised the confidentiality and classified nature of the material," he said.
House majority leader Steny Hoyer explains why he and other key leaders agreed to the Republican request. "All this contemplates is the offering and receiving of information that the minority has represented, they believe they want to give to the members, they ought not to give in open session," he said.
Republican minority whip Roy Blunt implied that new classified information would likely be discussed, although he asserted it would not differ from details already made available to members of the House intelligence committee. "This is a bill that goes well beyond the information the most members would normally have. I think the secret session will be helpful to the members, or I wouldn't have said early today that I would ask for it," he said.
Democratic lawmakers also questioned what information revealed in Thursday's classified session could be discussed when, as is now expected, the House holds an open public debate on the Democratic measure on Friday:
Congresswoman Diane Watson was among those pressing Republicans and her own Democratic leadership to explain why the closed debate was necessary. "I have got to go back to my district and explain to my constituents why we had a secret session before we voted on the FISA bill," she said.
President Bush and Republicans accuse Democrats of leaving critical loopholes in place that harm the ability of the intelligence community to conduct electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists overseas, including monitoring of communications involving U.S. citizens that involves U.S. communications hubs.
Although the U.S. Senate approved, in a strong bipartisan vote, retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that assisted the government in a once-secret surveillance program, House Democrats refuse to do so and have not brought up the Senate measure for consideration.
Among key differences with the Senate's measure, House Democrat's bill would require a special intelligence court to approve surveillance steps before they begin, except in certain emergency situations, require additional legal reviews, and establish an independent commission to examine Bush administration surveillance. President Bush has said this would only slow the gathering of critical anti-terrorist intelligence.
House Republican leader John Boehner used a news conference to reiterate his party's position on the Democrat's bill. "Why would the speaker of the House continue to stand in the way of allowing a bipartisan group of members of the House, a majority of the House, from voting on the Senate-passed bill?," he said.
President Bush Thursday renewed his insistence on retroactive immunity, and lashed out at Democrats. "Members of the House should not be deceived into thinking that voting for this unacceptable legislation would somehow move the process along. Voting for this bill does not move the process along. Instead voting for this bill would make our country less safe," he said.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi used a separate briefing for reporters to reject the president's reasoning. "When the president says that the legislation we are putting forth will not make America safer, the president is wrong. He knows full well that the existing FISA law gives him the authority he needs, [that] the administration needs, to collect [intelligence]," she said.
Not known, of course, is the nature of any new information presented to lawmakers late Thursday the classified session, and what impact that might have on Democratic leader's willingness to take up Senate-passed legislation.