WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Thursday he might seek to block funding of a domestic eavesdropping program in an effort to force the Bush administration to answer lawmakers' questions about the operation.
In a warning to the White House, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he planned to introduce legislation that would cut off funds for the surveillance program, which he described as a threat to civil liberties and a violation of domestic espionage laws.
Specter said he was not yet prepared to support a cutoff of funding, which he said would be a measure of last resort. But he warned that if the Bush administration was unwilling to comply with existing laws or help draft new domestic surveillance legislation, the only way for Congress to exercise any control might be to deny funding.
"What's the use of passing another statute if the president won't pay any attention to it?" Specter said. "When you talk about withholding funds, there you're talking about a real authority."
Specter offered a funding cutoff measure as an amendment to an emergency war spending bill, but said he did not intend to push for the amendment's passage. He said that measure could be converted into legislation that would provide an opportunity for congressional hearings.
A draft of a proposal circulated by Specter's office would prohibit the use of funds for domestic electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes "unless Congress is kept fully and currently informed." In particular, the proposed bill would require the administration to brief all members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
To date, the White House has restricted such briefings to members of newly created subcommittees on the two intelligence panels.
The salvo from Specter underscores the tension between key Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration over the limits of presidential power in the war on terrorism.
The domestic surveillance program was launched in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop -- without first obtaining court warrants -- on the communications of U.S. residents. The White House has said that the eavesdropping is restricted to international calls between U.S. residents and individuals overseas who are suspected of having ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
The program was kept secret from all but a handful of members of Congress until last year, when its existence was reported by the New York Times. The White House has argued that the president has the constitutional authority to approve such spying measures during wartime.
"The administration remains confident that a majority of members of Congress continue to recognize the importance of protecting Americans through lawful intelligence activities directed at terrorists," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.
Many in Congress have rejected that argument and are pushing for an overhaul of espionage laws to subject the domestic surveillance program to greater outside scrutiny.
Specter has advocated legislation that would modify existing laws and require the government to obtain the approval of a special intelligence court. Another proposal, backed by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), would allow the government to bypass the special court in certain cases, but require disclosure to congressional intelligence subcommittees.
Specter said he had informed Bush of his intention to consider legislation that would deny funding for the program. Specter was particularly critical of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, saying that his testimony on the spying program before the Judiciary Committee had been so unresponsive that it would be pointless to call him to testify again.