Bush defends spy program in speech at GOP meeting


CAMBRIDGE -- President Bush defended his warrantless eavesdropping program to House Republicans yesterday amid criticism by some in his own party, telling lawmakers the activities were legal and under constant review.

Bush described the National Security Agency wiretapping program as an outgrowth of his belief that "we must do everything in our power to protect the country," adding that he often thinks about the possibility of another terrorist attack.

His remarks came during what Bush intended to be a private session with about 180 Republicans gathered at a posh waterfront resort here for an annual agenda-setting retreat. But a technical glitch enabled reporters to hear the comments, which Bush opened by exhorting lawmakers to keep the discussion to themselves.

"I expect this conversation we're about to have to stay in the room. I know that's impossible in Washington," Bush said after reporters were escorted out of the ballroom where he spoke.

His off-camera defense of the eavesdropping program, which Democrats and some Republicans say should be subjected to court review, echoed Bush's public drive to rally support for it.

"September the 11th changed the way I think," Bush said. "I wake up every morning thinking about a future attack."

Bush argued that the eavesdropping, which tracks some communications inside the United States, passes legal muster.

"See, like you, I take my oath of office seriously. I swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States," Bush said.

Bush spent more than 90 minutes in the closed-door session fielding questions from the members of Congress on such topics as energy policy and health care, as well as others that have divided the party, such as the NSA program and his immigration plan, a White House aide said.

Lawmakers, some in jeans or chinos as they relaxed with their families at the resort on the banks of the Choptank River, asked between 10 and 15 questions, one senior Republican aide estimated.

Bush was upbeat in his remarks to a Republican team struggling to regain its footing and protect its majority status amid ethics scandals and intraparty bickering.

The House Republicans swarmed around him for about a half-hour before he spoke, lining up with their children and spouses for handshakes and photographs.

In brief remarks before the news media representatives were ushered out, Bush urged the Republican House to enact an agenda of deep spending cuts, permanent tax cuts, tax breaks for private health care spending, alternative energy development, and improved math and science education.

Bush, whose sagging popularity could signal a problem for Republicans up for re-election this year, also acknowledged the difficulties they share.

"It's hard work to cut out and cut back on programs that don't work," he said during a six-minute speech packed with praise for the House members.

White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said the president wanted to spend the bulk of his time answering Republicans' questions behind closed doors. McClellan added that Republicans "were very appreciative" that Bush spent "most of his time answering questions and talking about priorities that are most on the minds of the American people."

The president waited until he thought reporters were safely out of hearing range, however, before raising the NSA program, in a nod to its sensitivity and the party divisions it has exposed.

After Bush departed, Republican leaders told reporters he had left the House members optimistic about the year ahead.

"The president and the Congress share a very aggressive agenda," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Rep. John T. Doolittle of California said he was impressed with the detail and sophistication of Bush's remarks during a rare opportunity to see the president in a closed-door setting. He called it "the equivalent of a post-graduate seminar on world diplomacy."

One Republican aide who was present for the question-and-answer session described it as cordial, with some members offering glowing compliments before asking Bush a question.

Maryland's two Republican House members, Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett, did not attend the meeting. Gilchrest, whose district includes Cambridge, said he hoped to catch the closing session of the conference today at the Hyatt resort.

Hastert and other party leaders said Bush's appearance would help crystallize discussions held during the conference, which included a session with White House budget chief Joshua B. Bolten after Bush returned to Washington.

Fiscal conservatives are pressing the party to take major steps to curtail government spending, and Bush's $2.77 trillion budget for the fiscal year beginning in October has not been enthusiastically embraced on Capitol Hill.

The retreat will continue until this afternoon, weather permitting, with a scheduled discussion of proposed changes to the rules governing lawmakers' interactions with lobbyists. The scandal enveloping Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff has roiled Washington and prompted calls for reforms.

julie.davis@baltsun.com gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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