- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

House Democrats yesterday took another crack at settling a bitter partisan dispute on overhauling the nation’s electronic spying laws, but a bill they pushed through the chamber was overwhelming rejected by Republicans and has little chance of becoming law.

The measure to update the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed the House by a vote of 213-197. No Republicans voted for the bill, while only 12 Democrats crossed party lines to reject it. The vote was about 60 votes shy of two-thirds that would be needed to overturn the promised White House veto.

The House passed a similar version of the Democratic bill late last year, but it died after failing to win enough support in the Senate.

The key sticking point is a Republican demand to give telecommunications companies legal immunity for their participation in a domestic surveillance program the Bush administration authorized 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.

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

“The president has said that our legislation will not make America safe. The president is wrong and I think he knows it,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Mrs. Pelosi added that she suspects Mr. Bush is pressing for immunity to cover up potential administration “incompetence in falling to follow the procedures in the statute.”

But Capitol Hill Republicans and Mr. Bush say phone companies shouldn’t be penalized for helping defend the nation against terrorism. And they say that refusing to grant legal protections to the companies will make them reluctant to cooperate in surveillance efforts, thus weakening national security.

“This flawed legislation has no chance of becoming law, and the majority [party] knows it,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Last summer, Congress passed a six-month measure permitting the administration’s warrantless surveillance program to continue. The measure expired last month after Republicans and Democrats failed to reach an agreement on the immunity provision.

Mr. Bush, who has said he will veto any FISA update that doesn’t provide legal protection for the telecommunication companies, supports a Senate bill passed last month that includes the immunity provision.

House Republican leaders also support the Senate version and repeatedly have tried to bring the measure up for a vote on the House floor, but their attempts have been blocked by Democratic leaders.

“Until the House decides to follow suit [and adopt the Senate measure], our intelligence capabilities will continue to dim — until our agents reach the point where they find themselves completely in the dark,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

The original 1978 FISA law, which is still in effect, 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.

Any further attempts to revise FISA likely won’t happen for several weeks. Congress is on recess and won’t return until March 31. And there remains strong bipartisan support in the Senate for that chamber’s own FISA bill, which passed 67-31.

Meanwhile, the Senate early yesterday passed a $3 trillion budget plan for fiscal 2009 that would eliminate the federal deficit by 2012 but would spend more on domestic programs than President Bush has proposed. The nonbinding budget blueprint passed at 2 a.m. by a vote of 51-44, mostly along party lines.

A proposed amendment that called for a one-year ban on earmarks — pet projects that members of Congress insert into legislation — was easily defeated.

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