- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2008

House Democratic and Republican leaders made election-year concessions on two long-standing national security disputes Thursday, passing a stalled war funding bill and settling a lingering fight on updating the nation’s spy laws.

The House on Thursday evening moved toward allocating about $162 billion to keep military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan going well into next year. The measure also would provide billions of dollars to fund a new college tuition reimbursement program for returning war veterans, expand the unemployment insurance benefits program and provide money for Midwest flood relief.

After more than a year of bickering among Democrats, Republicans and the White House on drafting a new electronic surveillance law, House leaders in both parties Thursday announced a bipartisan agreement to update the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The measure would allow U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop, without court approval, on foreign targets thought to be outside the United States, and provides retroactive immunity to telephone companies that participated in the post-Sept. 11 surveillance program that operated outside court review.

The compromised bill, on which the House is expected to vote Friday, requires companies facing about 40 civil suits to show that the White House ensured the program’s legality with signed orders from the president. Republican leaders said they were convinced the procedure would lead to dismissals of the lawsuits, although senior Democratic staffers familiar with the bill dismissed such rhetoric.

A temporary expansion of FISA laws, which allowed the government to spy on certain people without a warrant, expired in February after congressional party leaders failed on several attempts to pass a new deal.

The deal on the war funding bill was brokered Wednesday after weeks of bitter partisan wrangling, with each party giving up several key concessions.

“We could have had this agreement long ago if the Democratic leadership had not chosen to play political games with our troops,” said Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “That being said, this bill is a real victory. It gets our troops the funding they need for success - without hamstringing our commanders in the field with politically motivated war restrictions.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said she was disappointed that some provisions were dropped from the bill, particularly a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq - something that Mrs. Pelosi and other liberal Democrats have strongly pushed since the party took control of the House in January 2007.

But the speaker added that she was pleased with the overall deal.

“You don’t do everything in one bill [but] … it is important for us to have a bill that will be signed, because we have to get this job done,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “The bill goes a long way.”

The package was split into two sections, with the war funding component passing by a vote of 268-155, and a measure including the expanded GI college benefits, unemployment insurance extension, disaster assistance and other domestic needs passing by a vote of 416-12.

The White House, which had threatened to veto earlier versions of the measure, said it would support the bill.

Democrats agreed to a Republican demand that benefits in the GI Bill will be allowed to be transferred to a recipient’s spouse or children. The measure, modeled after the nation’s original GI bill that allowed millions of World War II veterans to attend college, would provide full tuition, including money for fees, books and housing, based on the most-expensive public college in a veteran’s state of residence.

Democrats succeeded in including a provision giving laid-off workers 13 additional weeks of unemployment compensation, a move initially opposed by many Republicans and the White House. But a Democratic provision waiving the 20-week federal minimum to collect benefits was stripped from the bill.

Another Democratic proposal that called for a 0.5 percent surtax on individuals earning more than $500,000 a year and couples making more than $1 million also was dropped.

The measure is expected to pass next week in the Senate, which adopted similar legislation last month by an overwhelming 70-26 vote for war money and 75-22 for domestic spending.

The Senate bill had billions of dollars more in domestic add-ons, including $1 billion for home heating aid for the poor, that are not in the House-passed version.

On the FISA bill, the courts will have access to classified letters to the telephone companies that indicate the president authorized the spying and it was determined to be lawful.

Both sides of the lawsuits will have the opportunity to file briefs on legal issues in the cases.

The immunity provisions would not apply to government agencies or officials involved in the warrantless surveillance programs, which tapped calls in the United States between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2007, when the program came under FISA court review.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he would have preferred that the bill not contain a sunset provision because repeated public scrutiny of spy laws can compromise intelligence gathering activities.

But he said the bill managed to empower the country’s spy agencies while protecting the privacy rights of U.S. residents and U.S. citizens.

Mr. Hoekstra said looming danger of spy agencies “going dark” this summer forced the compromise.

The immunity provision drew fire from Senate Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, called the bill an improvement on past versions but “he remains opposed to retroactive immunity and is reviewing the bill in its entirety,” his spokesman said.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and member of the intelligence panel, said the House deal was not a compromise but a “capitulation.”

The ACLU said it “sternly warned” lawmakers against voting for the legislation, which it said would pardon phone companies for breaking the law.