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.
The House and Senate versions of the new FISA provisions differ slightly, but leaders on both sides acknowledged that the major stumbling block is immunity for the telecommunications industry, which faces dozens of lawsuits for providing personal information to intelligence agencies without warrants.
Senate Democrats' split on immunity echoes past party divisions over national security issues, including how strongly to confront Bush on the tools the administration uses to target suspected terrorists and their allies.
"This is the right way to go, in terms of the security of the nation," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the intelligence committee, which wrote the Senate bill.
Rockefeller was one of 17 Democrats who joined 49 Republicans and one independent to reject an amendment offered by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) that would have stripped the immunity provision from the bill.
Two-thirds of the Democratic caucus opposed immunity. "It is inconceivable that any telephone companies that allegedly cooperated with the administration's warrantless wiretapping program did not know what their obligations were. And it is just as implausible that those companies believed they were entitled to simply assume the lawfulness of a government request for assistance," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who co-sponsored the amendment.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is locked in a tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination, opposed immunity for the industry, along with the entire elected Democratic leadership team. Clinton, who has publicly opposed immunity in the past, was campaigning during yesterday's primaries and did not attend the vote.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the front-runner for the GOP nomination, supported the overall bill and the immunity provision. Neither Clinton nor Obama was on hand for the vote on final passage of the bill. McCain was.
Congressional leaders have until Friday -- when a two-week extension of the temporary law that authorizes expanded surveillance powers expires -- to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.
Republican leaders in both chambers have pushed for passage of the Senate bill without a House-Senate conference.
"I don't think there's a need to do a conference. This bill has been vetted and vetted and vetted," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the Republican whip.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, warned Democrats not to expect a softening of the administration's position.
"I think the Democrats would be making a mistake if they felt the president was not going to be serious about vetoing any further extension or insisting that the immunity provisions be in there," Smith said.
But House Democratic leaders continued pushing for more information about the warrantless spying that telephone companies aided after the 2001 attacks.
Available documents on the program "raise important questions, and it will take some time to gather enough information to make a determination on the issue of retroactive immunity," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) said yesterday.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Debbi Wilgoren and washingtonpost.com staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.