Dodd's filibuster threat scuttles immunity in Senate, for now; Reid won't credit Dodd
Nick Juliano and Mike Sheehan
Published: Monday December 17, 2007 |
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Senate to return to controversial FISA update after new year

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 over an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As the FISA update was written, it 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, a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, canceled campaign events in Iowa and 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.

"Today we have scored a victory for American civil liberties and sent a message to President Bush that we will not tolerate his abuse of power and veil of secrecy," Dodd said in a statement released after Reid pulled the bill. "The President should not be above the rule of law, nor should the telecom companies who supported his quest to spy on American citizens. I want to thank the thousands of Americans throughout the country that stood with me to get this done for our country."

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."

Despite Dodd's triumphant assertion, "the decision had nothing to do with the efforts of Dodd and his allies," a Reid spokesperson told the Washington Post

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.

During the daylong debate in the Senate, Dodd was joined by other Democrats in panning the proposal to spare the telecoms from judicial review of their actions, even though the Bush administration has failed to give all of the Senators access to internal documents that provided legal justifications for the warrantless wiretapping program, which became known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Reid said he wrote to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell asking that he give all senators' access to the documents, which previously were handed over only to the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

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."

In the course of Monday's debate, some senators who had previously supported the grant of immunity seemed to be wavering.

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's stand in the Senate came less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and he was the only presidential candidate in the chamber to leave the campaign trail for the FISA debate. All three -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden -- had said they would support Dodd's filibuster.

"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."