A top US Republican senator for the first time mentioned impeachment in connection with President George W. Bush's authorization of electronic surveillance inside the United States without a court warrant.
Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cautioned it was too early to draw any conclusions as his committee gears up for public hearings into the growing controversy early next month.
But in his appearance on ABC's "This Week" program, Specter insisted the Senate was not going to give the president what he called "a blank check."
When asked what could happen if lawmakers find Bush in violation of the law, Specter answered: "Impeachment is a remedy. After impeachment, you could have a criminal prosecution, but the principal remedy ... under our society is to pay a political price."
He made it a point to clarify, however, that he was speaking theoretically and was "not suggesting remotely that there's any basis" for a presidential impeachment at this moment.
The controversy erupted last month after the New York Times reported that Bush had repeatedly authorized the National Security Agency to monitor overseas telephone calls and e-mail traffic to and from people living in the United States without requisite permission from a secret court.
Under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the government can conduct such surveillance only for 72 hours as it seeks a warrant for continued monitoring.
Bush has blasted the disclosure as harmful to national security and vowed to continue the wiretaps, arguing he had the right to authorize them under his constitutional war powers as well as a resolution passed by Congress in the wake in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The measure adopted three days after the strikes allows the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force" against those involved in them, but contains no specific language on surveillance.
Specter said he disagreed with the contention that the resolution included an implicit authorization to modify the surveillance act.
"If that's what the administration was relying on, I thought they were wrong," he pointed out.
He added that the issue of wartime presidential powers was "a very knotty question" that "ought to be thoroughly examined."
Specter assured he was prepared to listen to the administration's explanations, but warned, "I'm going to wear my skepticism on my sleeve."
The chairman became the second Republican Judiciary Committee member to publicly question the president's rationale for authorizing the wiretaps.
Senator Sam Brownback said last month he did not agree "with the legal basis on which they are basing their surveillance."
The statements indicate the Bush administration will not be able to count on full support from the 10 committee Republicans when the hearings begin in early February.
The judiciary committee also has eight Democrats, who have questioned the legality of the surveillance program.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the Democratic members, reiterated her doubts Sunday, saying, "I do not believe it's true that the president's plenary power would allow him to simply avoid the law."
The fray was also joined by First Lady Laura Bush, who told reporters on the way to Liberia that the American people expected the president "to do what they can to make sure there's not an attack by foreign terrorists."
The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 50 percent of Americans believe the administration was right undertaking these wiretaps, while 46 percent said it was wrong.
Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse.