Monday, February 11, 2008

The Senate will resume debate today on a measure to update the nation’s wiretapping rules after several failed attempts to rewrite the controversial law.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders ended a two-week deadlock Thursday on how amendments could be added to the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). A final vote is expected tomorrow.

A temporary extension of the law is set to expire Saturday.

The biggest dispute is a Republican demand to grant retroactive immunity to phone companies that participated in a contentious domestic spying program that President Bush began shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Civil liberties activists and Democrats say the program was unconstitutional because warrants weren’t required. The phone companies that helped the government say they were just being good patriots. About 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating privacy rights. The Bush administration has said that if the cases go forward, information that would compromise national security could be revealed.

Democrats passed a temporary six-month FISA extension in August after failing to block the Republicans’ demand for the immunity provision. The extension was to expire Feb. 1, but Congress last month agreed to another 15-day extension.

Democratic leaders insist the immunity provision be stripped from any permanent FISA legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, in December went so far as to pull a FISA measure from consideration after failing to secure enough support to drop immunity.

Capitol Hill Republicans and Mr. Bush say the immunity provision is needed so phone companies that helped defend the U.S. against terrorism aren’t punished.

The original 1978 FISA law requires the government to obtain a warrant from a special court to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance in the United States. But changes in telecommunications technology have forced the government to sometimes get warrants to spy abroad, because foreign phone calls and other electronic communications now travel through U.S. networks.

The House has passed a version of the measure that doesn’t include the immunity provision.

The White House has threatened to veto any bill that doesn’t contain the immunity provision.

With FISA set to expire at the end of the week, Congress has little time to hammer out a compromise with the House bill.

If the issue remains at an impasse, Mr. Reid said Friday, he will ask for another 15-day extension. It is not certain whether Senate Republicans would support such a move.

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