By KATHERINE SHRADER
It could be campaign-year jitters. President Bush’s controversial eavesdropping program has irritated congressional Democrats and even some Republicans.
To some, the shift is pure politics as lawmakers worry about the November elections or look ahead to 2008. They are emboldened by fundamental legal questions about the National Security Agency’s monitoring and Bush’s weak public support on terrorism, once his bread-and-butter issue.
To others, it’s Congress reasserting itself as an equal branch of government.
“This is an institutional confrontation between Congress and the White House,” said Tom Newcomb. He spent 25 years in national security in a trifecta across all three branches, including working for CIA Director Porter Goss when he chaired the House Intelligence Committee.
Not a single lawmaker briefed on the NSA program has said the monitoring should end. But many Democrats and a growing number of Republicans are questioning the legal underpinnings of Bush’s directive authorizing the eavesdropping without court approval.
Bush has said he has the inherent authority as president and, he says, Congress bolstered that power with a September 2001 resolution approving the use of military force to go after those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Democrats and _ notably _ some Republicans say Bush’s arguments are a stretch.
Some of those Republicans won’t face voters until 2008, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Specter and Collins are part of a dwindling breed of Republican moderates. Graham, who also has tangled with the White House, is believed to have longer term ambitions for national office.
Other skeptical Republicans are looking for new jobs or struggling to keep their current ones:
_Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who has White House aspirations, has asked whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should be updated.
_Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another presidential aspirant, says oversight is needed to determine if the program is legal. “Congress has to be briefed,” he said.
_Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, struggling in his re-election battle this year, has said changes in law are necessary to give the White House the statutory authority to conduct the monitoring _ and end the controversy. He is writing legislation that would exempt the program from FISA and require regular briefings for select lawmakers.
_Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, in a re-election fight, has advocated updates to FISA and more robust briefings for Congress. The Air Force veteran’s tough stand forced the White House to grudgingly disclose some information last week.
_Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a maverick who is thinking about running for the White House in 2008, called for a Senate inquiry in December, along with his colleague on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. The moderate Snowe, lacking a challenger, is a shoo-in for re-election in November and routinely breaks with the White House.
In a closed committee session Thursday, Snowe and Hagel voted to give the White House until early March to work with Congress on legislation and further briefings.
At that time, the committee may reconsider an investigation. “Senator Snowe believes we are at a starting point in terms of negotiations,” her spokeswoman said.
Polls show approval for Bush’s U.S.-based terrorist surveillance program is growing. An AP-Ipsos poll last week showed that people are now evenly divided on whether the administration should be required to get warrants before monitoring domestic calls overseas.
The diminishing support in Congress is not yet a revolt, in part because terrorism remains a top concern to voters, rating third in importance, behind the war in Iraq and the economy.
The GOP still has many believers in terrorism as a political strategy. The Republican National Committee and Vice President Dick Cheney have made clear they intend to try to capitalize on it, and they see the NSA program is a winning issue.
At a dinner last week, Cheney said the discussion of the NSA program “has clarified where all of us stand.”
Yet public approval for how Bush is handling terrorism is declining. That makes it even easier for Democrats to distance themselves from Bush’s national security priorities.
Some Republicans also may be questioning whether Bush’s strategy of campaigning on terrorism will work. Mirroring declines in Bush’s support on terrorism, his job approval, now at about 40 percent in various polls, was around 80 percent in February 2002.
Wilson, who heads a House intelligence subcommittee that oversees the NSA, has rejected suggestions that her strong words against the White House might have political repercussions. “I guess I don’t look at this as a partisan issue,” Wilson said.
Eric Uslaner, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, said the NSA program will not be one that decides elections, but is one more issue people can use to protest the administration. Concerns about the surveillance, he notes, cut across party lines.
“Liberals worry that the administration will be trying to harass critics of the administration’s policies, and conservatives worry that the state will gain too much power,” Uslaner said.
Katherine Shrader has covered Washington since 1997.
Ã‚Â© 2006 The Associated Press