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Gary Younge
Terror curbs questioned

As President George Bush yesterday returned to the domestic agenda for the first time since the attacks, a growing number of legislators are accusing his administration of using the crisis to push his conservative agenda through what was, until recently, a bitterly divided Congress.

Both Republicans and Democrats have also criticised the administration for attempting to rush through laws which will have long-standing and unforeseen consequences without giving them sufficient time for scrutiny.

New anti-terrorism laws proposed by the president are suffering a rough passage through judiciary committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

A proposal to permit the indefinite detention of immigrants suspected of ties to terrorist groups without trial has concerned both Republicans and Democrats. The administration's bill would also expand wire tap authority to include cell phones and emails, making it easier to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and broaden the definition of terrorists to include those who "lend support" to terrorist organisations.

"Why is it necessary to rush this through?" asked conservative Republican Robert Barr. "Does it have anything to do with the fact that the department now seeks to take advantage of what is obviously an emergency situation to obtain authorities that it has been unable to obtain previously?"

"We do not want the terrorists to win by having basic protections taken away from us," said Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate judiciary committee.

Senator Russ Feingold, the Democratic chairman of a judiciary sub committee, feels "a special duty to defend the constitution against proposals, born of an understandable desire for vengeance and justice, that would undermine the constitutional liberties that make this country what it is".

The attorney general, John Ashcroft, who presented the case for the administration over the last two days, said there was good reason to expedite the law changes. "Every day that passes is a day that terrorists have an advantage."

A more partisan animosity has developed over the economy. Mr Bush plans to use the surplus from the social security payments to revitalise the economy. His critics accuse him of breaking a campaign promise to ringfence the money for harder times. Democratic congressman, Barney Frank, has argued that Bush should rescind that part of the recent tax cuts that benefited the top 1%.

Mr Bush insists that when he delivered the pledge, it came with the caveat that the surplus would be protected unless in times of war, recession or a national emergency - "it seems to me we have all three," he said.

Senators also objected earlier this week to administration plans to close some military bases.

The defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said the closures were more, not less vital, in the new context. But some on the Senate armed services committee believe it makes little sense to shut down facilities just as the nation is gearing up for war.

It is a far cry from the bipartisan spirit which dominated both houses of Congress only a fortnight ago, when the Senate passed the resolution to approve the use of military force and set aside $40bn to clean up the wreckage without dissent or debate. The House of Representatives endorsed the measures with 420 votes to one - Barbara Lee, the lone congresswoman who voted against, is now under armed guard.

Some on the right urged Mr Bush to exploit the new-found consensus to forge ahead with his more controversial domestic agenda. An editorial in the conservative Wall Street Journal urged the president to "use the moment to press a broad agenda that he believes in the national interest".

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