- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

The House yesterday rejected a Democratic proposal for another temporary extension to the nation’s domestic wiretapping laws, setting up a showdown with President Bush, who is insisting on a permanent fix before the current extension expires in two days.

The House killed a request by Democrats by a vote of 229-191 for a 21-day extension of a law that temporarily updated the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Thirty-four Democrats, including members of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, voted against the measure. No Republicans voted yes.

President Bush had threatened to veto the measure if it had passed.

House Democratic leaders say they are willing to let the surveillance law lapse Saturday without replacement legislation rather than rush through a bill at the last minute.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, accused Mr. Bush of taking “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,” which Mr. Hoyer called “an irresponsible act.”

The congressman downplayed the potential security risks of letting the spying laws expire Saturday, saying that current surveillance operations could continue for a year even if the law expired.

The biggest dispute is a Republican demand to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for their participation in a domestic spying program the president began shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The secret program circumvented a court that oversees such activities.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T;, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating privacy rights while participating in the program.

Mr. Bush supports a Senate bill passed Tuesday that includes the immunity provision, saying it’s necessary because phone companies should not be penalized for helping defend the nation against terrorism.

But civil liberties activists and many Democrats say Mr. Bush’s program was unconstitutional because warrants weren’t required. House Democratic leaders, who passed their own version of the bill last year that has no immunity provision, say they want to know more about the lawsuits before granting immunity.

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

House Republican leaders say Democrats need to accept the political reality that any permanent FISA bill must include that immunity.

“It is time for the House Democratic leadership to swallow its pride and immediately schedule the Senate-passed FISA modernization bill so we can close the terrorist loophole and give our intelligence officials — not government lawyers — the tools they need to protect our national security,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

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

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.

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