January 24, 2008 – The Senate yesterday began debating whether to grant legal immunity to telephone companies for assisting in warrantless wiretaps of terrorism suspects, with Democrats divided and their leadership pleading with the White House for more time to consider the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) wrote in a letter to President Bush that Congress needs another month to agree on a replacement for a temporary surveillance law, which lawmakers approved as a stopgap measure last August and is to expire on Feb. 1.
“The legislative process on this critical issue should neither be rushed, nor tainted by political gamesmanship,” Reid wrote.
But Vice President Cheney said in a speech yesterday that Congress “must act now” to renew the expiring surveillance law and provide telecommunications companies with protection from lawsuits alleging they violated personal privacy rights while helping the government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Those who assist the government in tracking terrorists should not be punished with lawsuits,” Cheney said at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The temporary surveillance law — approved under heavy White House pressure — gives the government broad powers to eavesdrop on the communications of terrorism suspects without warrants. It effectively legalized many of the practices employed by the National Security Agency as part of a secret program approved by Bush in late 2001.
The White House and Republican lawmakers are pushing to make the law permanent while also adding legal protections for telecommunications companies, which face dozens of lawsuits. Most House Democrats and civil liberties groups strongly oppose immunity for the communications firms, but other Democrats — including John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee — have backed the GOP position.
Reid said he is personally opposed to granting legal protections to the communications companies, but he has designated the intelligence committee’s bill as the starting point for Senate debate. Given the Senate’s composition, that decision means that opponents would effectively need 60 votes to strip immunity from the bill; Democratic aides concede they do not appear to have the votes to meet that threshold.
Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers have said they may put forward amendments providing more limited legal protections for the telecommunications companies, but the prospects for compromise are uncertain. Rockefeller told reporters yesterday that his committee’s immunity proposal “will prevail.” Six of the committee’s eight Democrats supported the legislation, giving Republicans a crucial edge in the narrowly divided Senate.
Further complicating the outlook was a renewed threat by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to stage a filibuster to block any version of the bill that includes immunity.
Once the Senate acts, the bill would go to a conference committee that includes members of the House, which has approved a bill that lacks immunity provisions and would increase oversight of the government’s spying activities. In the end, a final Senate bill is unlikely to be approved until next week, leaving little time for negotiations with House lawmakers, legislative aides said.
Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Democrats opposing immunity face an uphill battle and accused Reid of mishandling the issue. “We would very much like Senator Reid to have a fight with the White House, to move forward with a bill that’s stronger on civil liberties and has no immunity,” she said. “If a bill doesn’t pass, it’s on the president’s head.”
Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, called the criticism “ridiculous” and said the debate is proceeding under Senate rules. “Senator Reid strongly opposes efforts to grant the telecommunication companies immunity and will work with senators to try to improve this bill in as many ways as possible,” Manley said.