WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's anti-terrorism package wouldn't have prevented the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Attorney General John Ashcroft told a House committee Monday as lawmakers said they needed more time to consider measures.
The House Judiciary Committee had planned to vote Tuesday on the legislation, one day after Ashcroft came up to Capitol Hill to call for the package's speedy approval.
"The American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts," the attorney general said.
But House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the committee would now take up the bill late next week to give the panel time to work out concerns raised by some lawmakers, including some questions about the constitutionality of some of the provisions.
"We are very close to reaching a bill that has bipartisan support and that would pass the House of Representatives," Sensenbrenner said.
Ashcroft, a former senator, wants Congress to expand the FBI's wiretapping authority, impose stronger penalties on those who harbor or finance terrorists and increase punishments of terrorists.
"Every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage," Ashcroft said. "Until Congress makes these changes, we are fighting an uphill battle."
He said the new powers would not necessarily have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks that killed more than 6,000 people in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
"I cannot say to you if we had enacted these in August, we would have curtailed the activities in September nor can I assure this committee that we won't have terrorist acts in the future," he said. "But the mere fact that we can't do everything shouldn't keep us from doing what we can do."
Too important to rush
Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee said the issues were too important to rush the legislation.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the panel's senior Democrat, said the two parties had agreed on 16 items in Ashcroft's package, but that some others "give us constitutional trouble."
Ashcroft's proposal also would allow immigrants suspected of terrorism to be held indefinitely -- something Conyers said the courts already have viewed as unconstitutional.
Concerns also were raised about the proposed use in U.S. courts of electronic surveillance gathered by foreign governments with methods that violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
"While some would say that's unconstitutional on its face, let me be more polite: We're deeply troubled," Conyers said.
Ashcroft said he was sure his bill would pass constitutional muster. "We are conducting this effort with a total commitment to protect the rights and privacy of all Americans and the constitutional protections we hold dear," he said.
The attorney general is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, which already has said it will move much slower on the package. The Senate panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is proposing his own anti-terrorism language.