By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
The Senate yesterday left the fate of a new electronic surveillance law backed by the Bush administration up in the air, as a Republican-led effort to cut off a Democrat-led debate and proceed to a vote on the bill failed, mostly along party lines.
Heightening the drama surrounding expiration of the existing surveillance law at midnight Thursday, the Senate also failed to approve a Democratic effort to extend the deadline by 30 days -- a move that the White House has opposed because the law already was extended last summer for a six-month run.
"To protect America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning," President Bush said last night in his State of the Union speech to Congress. "This means that if you do not act by Friday, our ability to track terrorist threats will be weakened."
Congress broadly supports passing a new version of the controversial legislation at issue, named the Protect America Act by its sponsors. But congressional Democrats and the White House are battling over President Bush's demands that any bill include immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with intelligence agencies in warrantless wiretaps after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The telecommunications companies are now the targets of dozens of lawsuits alleging that they violated privacy rights by aiding the government's surveillance.
The Democrat-led House has already passed a version without an immunity provision, while in the Senate at least a dozen Democrats have joined Republicans in endorsing a bill that includes immunity. Those Democrats, led by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), chairman of the intelligence committee, have said that they want to allow several more amendments to be debated and considered.
"I regret the games that are being played by both sides," Rockefeller said during floor debate. He pleaded for Bush to accept a 30-day extension of the bill instead of the brinksmanship of letting the law expire. "The White House has decided to exercise its own form of political terrorism." But Republicans rejected the notion of considering additional Democratic amendments, calling them "poison pills" that would just draw Bush's veto. The Republican-led vote to end debate needed 60 votes to pass. But just 44 Republicans and four Democrats voted for the measure, while 44 Democrats and one Republican voted no. The Democratic push for a 30-day extension, also needing 60 votes, received just 48 votes, all from Democrats.
One potential remedy being considered to end the gridlock would be an even shorter-term extension, a two-week version that would expire in mid-February, senior aides said. Members of the House are poised today to approve a 30-day extension of the Protect America Act, then leave town tomorrow morning for a three-day retreat in Williamsburg.