WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans blocked a proposed investigation of President Bush's domestic spying operation yesterday, as the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said he had reached an agreement with the White House to pursue legislation that would establish clearer rules surrounding the controversial National Security Agency surveillance program.
But Senate aides described the discussions with the White House as very preliminary. And angry Democrats expressed deep skepticism with the negotiations, with some describing them as a ploy to protect the Bush administration and the highly classified domestic eavesdropping operation from congressional scrutiny.
The maneuvering underscored the stakes surrounding a secret intelligence-gathering program that the White House describes as critical to preventing future terrorist attacks in the United States but critics see as unconstitutional and an abuse of executive power.
After a closed-door meeting with committee members, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said the panel had "decided to adjourn without considering" a Democratic proposal to launch an investigation of the program, which is run by the National Security Agency, an intelligence agency that operates eavesdropping posts around the globe.
Instead, Roberts said, the vote was put off because the White House had "committed to legislation and has agreed to brief more Intelligence Committee members on the nature of the surveillance program."
White House officials confirmed a new willingness to consider legislative fixes, after weeks of insisting that no congressional action is necessary.
"We maintain that the president does not need additional congressional authority," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. But she said the Bush administration is now willing to discuss a GOP proposal that contains "some good legislative concepts that would not undermine the president's ability to protect Americans."
Perino was referring to a proposal by Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, that would specifically authorize the NSA to eavesdrop on international calls involving U.S. residents and suspected terrorists overseas without first obtaining a court warrant.
The White House has said Bush has the authority to approve such operations to protect the nation. But critics say the program violates a 1978 statute - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - that outlawed domestic eavesdropping without approval from a special intelligence court.
The new willingness to consider legislation appeared to be enough to appease several Republican lawmakers who have expressed misgivings about the domestic intelligence collection and were in position to cast deciding votes on whether to launch a Senate probe.
A senior Republican aide said that before the meeting, Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska told Roberts that they were prepared to vote for an investigation if the committee did not agree to work toward legislation. The "agreement in principle" to discuss the DeWine proposal was enough to persuade the senators to postpone the vote on an inquiry, but the issue is far from resolved.
"This is just a starting point," the aide said.
Snowe indicated yesterday that the White House had bought a limited amount of time. In a statement, she called for "congressional and judicial review over a program that currently has none," and said the Bush administration has until March 7 - when a follow-up committee meeting is scheduled - to "demonstrate its commitment to avoiding a constitutional deadlock."
The spying program was authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Before the operation was exposed publicly late last year, it had been one of the most closely guarded secrets in the intelligence community, with the Bush administration providing briefings to only a handful of senior lawmakers.
Senate Democrats denounced Republicans for delaying the vote on an investigation. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the party-line vote to adjourn the meeting before taking up the proposal was "another stalling tactic."
"Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee once again abdicated its responsibility to oversee the intelligence activities of the United States," Rockefeller said in a written statement.
Roberts defended the decision to block the vote by saying he believes an investigation would hurt an intelligence operation that he described as "vital for the protection of the American people." He offered few specifics about his discussions with the White House on possible legislation.
Roberts' spokeswoman, Sarah Ross, described those talks as in their early stages.
"There's nothing specific," Ross said. "The White House has agreed, and committed to work with Congress on an expanded role in oversight and some sort of legislative solution. But there is nothing particular or specific beyond that."
Other Republican aides said no legislative language had been shared with the White House, but White House and congressional officials said the discussions are focusing on DeWine's proposal, which would also create a new subcommittee on the Senate Intelligence Committee solely to monitor the NSA program.
Critics have called the DeWine approach inadequate.
"To simply exclude communications from the coverage of FISA and allow secret wiretapping without a warrant ... would be a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment," Kate Martin, director for National Security Studies at George Washington University, said in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department yesterday to respond within 20 days to requests by a civil liberties group for documents about the NSA program. The Electronic Privacy Information Center had sued the department under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking the release of the documents.
U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ordered the department to finish processing the group's requests and produce or identify all records within 20 days.
Greg Miller and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times. Wire services contributed to this article.