- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Backlash from a senator and liberal advocacy groups helped sidetrack legislation to legalize President Bush’s undocumented wiretapping program last week, just days after it appeared to be on a fast-track to passage.

The delay is a setback for Democratic leaders who support the measure, who had hoped to send the bill to Mr. Bush before this week’s July 4 holiday break.

The House June 20 put aside more than a year of partisan wrangling and easily passed a bill to modernize the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), allowing U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop, without court approval, on foreign targets thought to be outside the United States.

The legislation included retroactive immunity from lawsuits to phone companies that participated in a post-Sept. 11 surveillance program that operated outside court review - a controversial measure that had doomed previous attempts to pass a bill.

But opposition from Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, who has threatened to hold up the bill with a filibuster, forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Thursday to postpone a vote until next week.

Democratic and Republican leaders say they expect Mr. Feingold’s promised filibuster - a procedural move that would indefinitely hold up the bill, essentially killing it - to fail and that the bill will pass. But the delay has been a disappointment for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who helped broker the compromise legislation in the House.

“The challenge [Mr. Reid] faced was that members of his own party launched a filibuster of this key national security legislation,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Feingold, who opposes the bill’s immunity provision, said the measure was “not a compromise - it is a capitulation.”

“This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal wiretapping program,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Liberal advocacy groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to independent bloggers have urged Senate Democrats to support a filibuster.

“If the vote on final passage is delayed until after recess, we hope that senators will return to their districts and see just how strongly their constituents oppose this bill,” Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said last week. “Perhaps the Fourth of July will remind them of the American values of liberty and freedom.”

Mr. Feingold’s proposal also has the unusual support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who voted for the FISA bill in the House but told a gathering of reporters last week that “a filibuster against the bill would be healthy and wholesome.”

Mrs. Pelosi said she only reluctantly voted to support the bill and opposes the immunity measure.

The measure passed the House by a vote of 293-129 - largely on the strength of 105 Democrats who put aside their opposition to the immunity provision and voted for the bill.

The immunity compromise would allow the courts to dismiss any of the 40 pending lawsuits against phone companies if there is written certification the administration asked the companies to take part in the program and were assured it was legal.

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 increasingly get warrants to spy on foreign targets because foreign phone calls and other electronic communications often now move through U.S. networks.

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