- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Democrat-led House this afternoon is expected to pass another temporary extension to the nation’s domestic wiretapping laws that expire Saturday, thus defying a promise from President Bush this morning to veto anything short of a permanent fix.

“The time for debate is over,” Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. “I will not accept any temporary extension.”

The Senate yesterday, after several stalled attempts in recent months, passed a broad update of the nation’s 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The bill included a provision to give telecommunications companies legal immunity that participated in a domestic spying program Mr. Bush began shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The secret program circumvented a secret FISA court that oversees such activities.

But Democrats in the House, who late last year pushed through their own FISA bill that doesn’t include the immunity provision, say they need a 21-day extension of the current law so they can reach a compromise on the House and Senate versions.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the issue is too important and too sensitive to be rushed.

“We believe that responsible people in the Congress of the United State on both sides of the Capitol have an opportunity to see if they can bridge the differences that exists between them,” he said. “That cannot be done in the next 48 hours.

“For the president of the United States to take the position that unless we do exactly what he tells us to do, he’s going to put the country at risk and in danger and it is an irresponsible act.”

Congress in August passed a six-month FISA extension after Democrats and Republicans failed to reach a compromise on the immunity provision. The extension was to expire Feb. 1, but Congress last month agreed to another 15-day extension that expires Saturday.

Since then, they have insisted that immunity not be included in any permanent FISA fix.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T;, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating privacy rights while participating in the program. The Bush administration has said that if the cases go forward, information that would compromise national security could be revealed.

Mr. Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans say the immunity provision is necessary because phone companies should not be penalized for helping defend the nation against terrorism.

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

Civil liberties activists and many Democrats say Mr. Bush’s program was unconstitutional because warrants weren’t required.

Mr. Bush said any further delay would compromise national security.

“It is time for Congress to pass a law that provides a long-term foundation to protect our country, and they must do so immediately,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Hoyer called the president’s rationale for refusing an extension “dishonest” because the White House has not complied with several requests from the House Judiciary Committee for information on the lawsuits filed against the telecommunications companies.

“The immunity issue I have always said is something that we will consider,” he said. “I’ve also said that we need to know what we’re giving immunity for.

“If we give immunity right now, there will be no further disclosure as to what was done — whether it was legally or not.”

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