Senate Rejects Expansion of Secret Court's Oversight
Thursday, January 24, 2008; 5:07 PM
The Senate gave a strong boost today to legal protections for telephone companies that helped the government conduct a warrantless wiretap program, dramatically increasing the chances the legislation will survive a final vote next week.
In a lopsided 60-36 vote, the Senate rejected a proposal from the Senate Judiciary Committee that did not include immunity for the telecoms.
Instead, the Senate kept alive a competing proposal from the Senate intelligence committee that would offer legal protections to the companies and that has strong support from the White House.
The outcome increases the chance of an intra-party Democratic skirmish over the surveillance law, which would replace a stopgap measure passed last August that is due to expire in just eight days.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has asked President Bush to agree to a one-month extension, but Bush said in a statement today that lawmakers must act quickly.
"Congress' action or lack of action on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe," Bush said.
In an apparent attempt to sway opinions in the House, the White House today agreed to give members of the House intelligence and judiciary committees access to a set of secret records related to the warrantless wiretapping program.
Similar committees in the Senate had already been granted the same access last fall, according to legislative aides and other sources. House staff members immediately began examining the documents today, sources said.
The temporary surveillance law -- approved under heavy White House pressure -- gives the government broad powers to eavesdrop on the communications of terrorism suspects without warrants. It effectively legalized many of the practices employed by the National Security Agency as part of a secret program approved by Bush in late 2001.
The White House and Republican lawmakers are pushing to make the law permanent while also adding legal protections for telecommunications companies, which face dozens of lawsuits. Most House Democrats and civil liberties groups strongly oppose immunity for the communications firms, but other Democrats -- including Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee -- have backed the GOP position.
Reid says he is personally opposed to granting legal protections to the communications companies, but he designated the intelligence committee's bill as the starting point for Senate debate. Given the Senate's composition, that decision means that opponents would effectively need 60 votes to strip immunity from the bill; Democratic aides concede they do not appear to have the votes to meet that threshold.
Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers have said they may put forward amendments providing more limited legal protections for the telecommunications companies, but the prospects for compromise are uncertain. For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is proposing an amendment that would require phone companies to appear before a secret intelligence court to justify their actions after Sept. 11, 2001.
Rockefeller predicted yesterday that his panel's immunity proposal "will prevail." Six of the committee's eight Democrats supported the legislation, giving Republicans a crucial edge in the narrowly divided Senate. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has also threatened to stage a filibuster to block any version of the bill that includes immunity.
Once the Senate acts, the bill would go to a conference committee that includes members of the House, which has approved a bill that lacks immunity provisions and would increase oversight of the government's spying activities. In the end, a final Senate bill is unlikely to be approved until next week, leaving little time for negotiations with House lawmakers, legislative aides said.