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Dodd ready to mount filibuster to block telecom immunity
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday December 17, 2007 | StumbleUpon
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&spon Live video of the Senate debate on the FISA update and telecom immunity can be seen on C-Span 2 here.

UPDATE: Filibuster threat succeeds in delaying FISA update consideration until January

After nearly 10 hours of discussion Monday, the Senate decided to delay a final vote on a controversial domestic spying bill until the new year, under the threat of a protracted filibuster from Sen. Chris Dodd.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spent the afternoon Monday huddling with Senate leaders and fellow Democrats to try to work out a deal to bring to the floor an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that included a provision for legal immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated a warrantless wiretapping scheme that Dodd and other Democrats said was illegal.

"We have tried to work through this process, and it appears quite clear that on this bill we are not going to be able to do that," Reid said around 7:30 p.m. Monday, after Senators had spent the day debating propositions of the FISA update.

Dodd spent the day urging his colleagues to block a proposal to shield phone and Internet companies that gave the National Security Agency private call and e-mail records from an unknown number of Americans under the program President Bush authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The 64-year-old Connecticut senator indicated he would have been willing to keep the floor all night if needed to prevent the immunity provision from moving through the senate.

"I rarely come to the floor with this much anger," Dodd said. "I've never seen contempt of the rule of law such as this."

Granting immunity to the telecoms -- as President Bush has demanded -- would invalidate some 40 lawsuits that have been filed against telephone and internet companies. Plaintiffs in those suits say the telecommunications industry acted illegally and ignored the constitution in facilitating warrantless government wiretaps aimed at Americans.

Shortly after noon Monday, the Senate voted 76-10 to proceed to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed with regular debate on a proposed FISA update from the Intelligence Committee that includes telecom immunity. A Judiciary measure without immunity is pending as a substitute amendment.

Dodd controlled much of the action on the floor after debate on the measure began this afternoon, but his filibuster still had not begun in earnest by 7 p.m. as Senate leaders continued to negotiate over how they would handle proposed amendments to the FISA update.

A half-hour later, Reid lamented that senators could not come to an agreement on how to proceed and would have to delay consideration of the FISA update until at least January 15, when the Senate returns from a recess that is to begin at the end of this week. The Senate still has a raft of spending and tax bills and other legislation it needs to clear from its plate before the week is over.

Dodd said he hoped the Senate would be able to reach a compromise that would excise the immunity proposal from the FISA update before the chamber re-convenes in January. If immunity persists in the bill, Dodd said, he would resume his promised filibuster.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) planned to join Dodd in offering an amendment that would strip the immunity provision from the bill.

It is unclear when senators will begin voting on amendments and the bill itself, but Dodd plans to begin his filibuster after a vote on his and Feingold's amendment, assuming it is not successful. Dodd aides said they did not expect Monday to play out as it did but were glad to see that the Connecticut senator managed to delay a vote on telecom immunity as long as he had without having to resort to a filibuster.

The 64-year-old dark-horse presidential candidate is prepared to hold the Senate floor as long as needed once his filibuster begins. The longest a single senator has ever spoken during a filibuster is just over 24 hours.

Sen. Ted Kenney (D-MA) urged against "amnesty" for the telecom companies because we cannot let the country off the hook simply because they think they're acting as patriot. Kennedy invoked a New York Times report that the National Security Agency wanted to become a "powerful, permanent presence" on US communication networks, and he said that's what would happen if Congress continues to let phone companies off the hook.

"If the phone companies simply do the NSA's bidding in violation of the law," Kennedy said, "they create a world in which Americans can never feel confident that their e-mails and phone calls aren't being tapped by government."

Kennedy also excoriated President Bush's threat to veto any FISA update that lacks a retroactive immunity provision.

"So if we take the president at his word, he's willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies," Kennedy said, his voice rising in anger. "The president's insistence on immunity as a precondition for any FISA reform is yet another example of disrespect for honest dialogue and the rule of law."

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who serves on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees that reported the FISA update, introduced an amendment Monday she said would "narrow" the grant of immunity to telecom companies. Feinstein's amendment would require a FISA court judge review authorization letters the administration sent to telecoms every 45 days to keep the president's warrantless wiretapping program running. She also indicated that her support for the Intelligence Committee's immunity proposal was wavering.

"I'm not inclined to vote for immunity, unless this amendment is adopted," Feinstein said.

Dodd canceled planned campaign events in Iowa to be in Washington Monday, but the Senate's other Democratic presidential candidates were all out on the campaign trail today, and none were in Washington to vote against the cloture motion or stand by Dodd's expected filibuster. This despite the fact that all three -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden -- said they would support Dodd's filibuster.

other Democratic presidential candidates -- Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- are in Washington today

Monday's consideration of telecom immunity came a day after new reports that the reach of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance efforts extended far beyond fighting terrorism and some were proposed or instituted before 9/11.

"The administration has claimed that is seeking merely foreign intelligence and that the intelligence is for national security purposes only. We see now that those claims are a part of a larger and more chilling picture," said the ACLU's Caroline Frederickson in a news release, referring to reports that first appeared in the New York Times detailing the NSA's efforts to tap into domestic communication networks and warrantlessly target calls to Latin America in search of drug dealers.

"Those who have filed the over 40 legitimate cases against the telecom companies deserve their day in court - especially now that what we thought we knew about the companies' involvement in domestic spying was, perhaps, just the tip of the iceberg," Fredrickson continued. "It becomes clearer and clearer just how in the dark Americans are when it comes to the surveillance they are subject to under this administration. It seems that the more we learn, the less we know.

Debate over the FISA update began at 10 a.m. Monday, and Dodd began speaking around 11 a.m.

"Believe me when I say if I did not speak today, my conscience would not rest," Dodd told his colleagues. He praised the Senate as a chamber in which even a "minority of one" can mount a protest against unacceptable legislation, to counteract the president's bully pulpit, as he sought to turn his minority into a "majority" of senators against telecom immunity.

Accusing telecommunications companies of "betraying millions of customers trust" by handing over phone records to the government for construction of a massive database, Dodd said blocking lawsuits against the companies would eliminate the last bastion of oversight of the president's warrantless wiretapping program.

"Was it legal?" Dodd asked. "That I don't know, but if we pass this bill we will never know."

The Connecticut senator accused President Bush of usurping the rule of law by asking the country to simply trust that he wasn't trampling on citizens' constitutional rights.

"We say to the president of the United States that a nation of free men and women would never take 'trust me' for an answer, not even from a perfect president," Dodd said. "At these times, I would be a fool to take that offer."

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV), whose committee passed a measure that would grant immunity to telecoms, insisted early in Monday's debate, which is being televised on C-Span 2, that such immunity was narrowly targeted to telephone and internet companies that facilitated the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program between Sept. 11, 2001, and January of this year, when the FISA court ruled on the program.

Dodd, a dark-horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nod, tried to put a "hold" on any FISA update with telecom immunity, but that request apparently has been ignored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

The 64-year-old Connecticut Senator plans to filibuster the bill -- the old fashioned way -- when it comes to the floor Monday. There is no word on how long Dodd's filibuster will last.

"It looks like the Senate Democratic leadership are not going to be the ones standing firm," a source familiar with the filibuster plan told RAW STORY.

In the modern Congress, the filibuster has become a de facto tool to require 60 votes in the Senate to pass virtually any piece of important or controversial legislation. Dodd's effort Monday would be the first time one Senator actually sought to block a bill by taking to the floor and refusing to yield since former Sen. Al D'Amato held the floor for 15 hours to protest job losses from his home state of New York to Mexico. That was in 1992 -- more than 15 years ago.

In 2003, Republicans cooperatively staged an all-night session to dramatize Democratic efforts to block President Bush's judicial nominations; earlier that week Reid held the floor for nearly nine hours to protest the Republicans stunt. And earlier this year, Reid kept the Senate in session all night to protest Republicans' refusal to allow a simple majority vote on a measure aimed at withdrawing US troops from Iraq.

Already, Dodd has lined up support from Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), to whom he plans to yield the floor for 20-minute "questions" that would allow him to take quick breaks but keep the filibuster going, reports FireDogLake.

Writing at TPM Cafe, Feingold criticizes Reid's plans to proceed with a measure passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which does not include telecom immunity, instead of with a Judiciary Committee measure that has no immunity. The Intelligence bill will be the base when the Senate begins debate, and the Judiciary measure will be pending as a replacement amendment. It would require 60 votes to supplant the Intel bill with Judiciary's version.

"We have a big fight on our hands, and unfortunately, the deck is now stacked against us," Feingold said. "Instead of being able to defend improvements that were made in the Judiciary Committee, we are going to have to start all over again to try to salvage the good work that was done to improve the bill."

Dodd and Feingold plan to offer an amendment to strip telecom immunity from the FISA update.

Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Feingold criticized the Intelligence Committee's proposal to grant immunity and accused administration officials of lying to Senators last week during a classified briefing about the proposed FISA updates.

"I am certain that over the course of this week, we will hear a number of arguments about why the Judiciary bill will hamper the fight against terrorism. Let me say now to my colleagues: Do not believe everything you hear," Feingold said. "Last week I sat with many of you in the secure room in the Capitol, S-407, and listened to arguments made by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that several of the examples they gave were simply wrong. Simply false . I am happy to have a classified meeting with anyone in this body who wishes to discuss this."

FDL says comments readers leave there could be read by Sen. Dodd when he takes to the Senate floor, and it is calling on the Senate's other presidential candidates -- Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- to stand by their pledges to support Dodd's filibuster.

"The time for leadership is now, not January 2009. ... You want to be our leader? Leadership begins by standing with Senator Dodd," wrote Scarecrow at FDL Monday.

Dodd's plan to hold up business on the Senate floor comes as the chamber scrambles to pass several important spending bills and other legislation before recessing for the holidays at the end of this week.