WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Thursday that the House Democrats' version of a terrorist-surveillance bill would undermine the nation's security and that if it reaches his desk, he will veto it.
Ratcheting up his rhetoric, Bush said, "The American people understand the stakes in this struggle. They want their children to be safe from terror."
Democrats launched their own broadside in response. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested Bush's criticism was disingenuous.
"The president has said that our legislation will not make America safe," she told reporters. "The president is wrong, and he knows it."
The third-ranking House Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, called Bush's comments "absurd and outrageous."
The House was expected to vote on the measure later Thursday. The bill Bush objects to would not give legal protection to telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies by people and organizations alleging they violated wiretapping and privacy laws. The lawsuits have been combined and are pending before a single federal judge in California.
The Democrats' measure would encourage the judge to review in private any secret government documents underpinning the program, in order to decide whether the companies acted lawfully.
The administration has prevented those documents from being revealed, even to a judge, by invoking the state secrets privilege. That puts the companies in a bind because it puts off-limits evidence they might use to defend themselves.
The surveillance law is intended to make it easier for the government to pursue suspected terrorists by making it easier to eavesdrop on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States. A temporary law expired Feb. 16 before Congress was able to produce a replacement bill. Bush opposed an extension of the temporary law as a tactic to pressure Congress into accepting the Senate version of the surveillance legislation. The Senate's bill provides retroactive legal immunity for the telecommunications companies.
Bush said lawsuits against telecom companies would lead to the disclosure of state secrets. Further, he said lawsuits would undermine the willingness of the private sector to cooperate with the government in trying to track down terrorists.
Bush said the House bill "could reopen dangerous intelligence gaps by putting in place a cumbersome court approval process that would make it harder to collect intelligence on foreign terrorists."
Directing his message at the House, Bush said, "They should not leave for their Easter recess without getting the Senate bill to my desk."
He predicted the Senate would not pass the House version of the bill, and said even if it did, he would veto it.
At least one Senate Republican said the lawsuits should go forward to determine whether the wiretapping program was illegal. But Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter wants to substitute the government for the phone companies as the defendant in the court cases.
"The president can't have a blank check," Specter said in an interview. "If you close down the courts, there's no check and balance."
He added: "Wiretaps are important for national security. There's no doubt about that. Al-Qaida and terrorism continue to be a major threat to this country. It is my hope that the president will not find it necessary to veto the bill, that we'll be able to work it out."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Bush is misrepresenting the House bill, and suggested the fight is less about surveillance powers than it is that House Democrats are refusing to bend to Bush's wishes.
"Congress owes the American people more than blind obeisance to the executive branch," said Hoyer, D-Md.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Hefling and Terence Hunt contributed to this report.