Democrats standing up to Bush on warrantless wiretap bill
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday January 28, 2008 |
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Update: Senate votes against GOP telecom immunity plan

In the shadow of the president's final State of the Union address, Senate Democrats are preparing for an 11th-hour showdown with George W. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress over controversial surveillance legislation.

The Senate voted down a GOP proposal that would cement an expansion of the president's authority to spy on Americans and free from legal jeopardy any telephone or Internet service provider who helped the country's intelligence agencies to collect vast amount of data on US citizens without a warrant. Anti-immunity activists say they expect the GOP gambit to fail.

On a 48-45 vote, Republicans failed to garner the necessary three-fifths majority of the Senate to end debate on a bill to expand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Sixty votes would be needed to end debate on the measure. A Democratic measure to extend a temporary FISA extension for 30 days while Senators work out the details of the long-term update also failed on a 48-45 vote.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) successfully led an effort to block immunity in December, just before Congress' holiday recess, and the Senate returned to the issue last week, considering dual proposals from the Intelligence and Judiciary committees. Last Thursday, Republicans and a dozen Democrats blocked Judiciary's proposal to update FISA without immunity, but the GOP then refused an agreement that would have required a mere 51-vote majority to pass further amendments.

Republicans filed for an immediate cloture vote on the Intelligence bill, which would preclude any amendments from being made. This angered Democrats, and Reid, who encouraged his caucus to support a filibuster of the bill. Reid also filed a 30-day extension of the Protect America Act, which expires Feb. 1.

Although the Judiciary proposal failed on a 60-34 vote, the Republicans' attempt to preclude any further amendments is expected to cost them support from some of the Democrats who joined them in that effort. Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) also have said they will vote against cloture.

Assuming cloture fails, Reid is expected to move forward with a vote on a one-month extension to give the Senate more time to work out its differences. President Bush has promised to veto such a bill.

After they were cowed last August into passing a temporary expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that critics said did too much to concentrate power in the hands of the executive, Congressional Democrats have decided to hit back against the president. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) turned the tables on Bush over the weekend, saying that blame for any gaps in the ability to collect intelligence resides at the White House.

The Senate's debate over a long-term FISA expansion has come in fits and starts over the last few months, since passage of the Protect America Act. Several times the issue was scuttled after left-leaning Senators moved to block a proposal that would grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. Those companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, are plaintiffs in 40 or so lawsuits nationwide alleging they violated customers' privacy; administration critics say the lawsuits are the only means for oversight of the wiretapping scheme in the face of an ultra-secretive administration.

Bush has promised to veto any temporary expansion of the PAA, and the administration hopes to use the pending deadline to force Congress into giving into telecom immunity. The House passed an immunity-free update months ago, and Reid has indicated he also will not budge, accusing Bush of "simply posturing" before his final State of the Union, according to the Politico.

"There will be no terrorism intelligence collection gap," Reid said. "But if there is any problem, the blame will clearly and unequivocally fall where it belongs: on President Bush and his allies in Congress."