House Rejects Extension of Surveillance Act

President Bush said Wednesday he is pleased the Senate has passed new rules for government eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails. He then urged the House to act promptly on a bill of their own. (Feb. 13) Video by AP
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; 5:25 PM

The House today overwhelmingly rejected an attempt by Democratic leaders to extend a controversial surveillance law by 21 days, increasing pressure on lawmakers to approve White House-backed legislation by the end of the week.

The 229-191 vote to kill the extension followed a toughly worded veto threat from President Bush, who said he would reject any delay and urged the House to adopt surveillance legislation approved by the Senate Tuesday.

"Terrorists are planning new attacks on our country...that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison," Bush said.

Today's vote is a setback for Democrats in the House, who oppose granting legal immunity from lawsuits to telecommunication providers who helped the government conduct a warrantless wiretapping program after the terrorist attacks more than six years ago.

The Senate yesterday approved a sweeping measure that would expand the government's clandestine surveillance powers, delivering a key victory to the White House by approving the telecom immunity provision.

On a 68 to 29 vote, the Senate approved the reauthorization of a law that would give the government greater powers to eavesdrop in terrorism and intelligence cases without obtaining warrants from a secret court.

The Senate's action came days before a temporary surveillance law expires Friday, and set up a clash with House Democrats, who have previously approved legislation that does not contain immunity for the telecommunications industry. The chambers have been locked in a standoff over the immunity provision since the House vote Nov. 15, with President Bush demanding the protection for the industry.

House leaders vowed again yesterday to oppose the telecom immunity provision until the White House releases more information about the controversial warrantless surveillance program it initiated shortly after the terrorist attacks. But Bush appeared before reporters this morning to applaud the Senate bill and warn House Democrats that he would not agree to any more extensions or temporary measures.

"The time for debate is over," Bush said, noting that the Senate version of the bill has drawn some bipartisan support in the House and urging lawmakers to pass it immediately.

"The lives of countless Americans depend on our ability to monitor these communications," Bush said. "We must be able to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying and what they are planning."

The House and Senate bills both include major revisions to the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which established a secret court to issue warrants for domestic spying on suspects in terrorism and intelligence cases. The National Security Agency, however, secretly bypassed the court for years as it obtained information from telecommunication companies, until media reports revealed the arrangement.

The most important change approved by the Senate yesterday would make permanent a law approved last August that expanded the government's authority to intercept -- without a court order -- the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States communicating with others overseas. U.S. intelligence agencies previously had broad leeway to monitor the communications of foreign terrorism suspects but needed warrants to monitor calls intercepted in the United States, regardless of where they originated.

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