March 6, 2008 – Democrats in the House of Representatives – teetering on the verge of compliance with the spy power demands of the Bush administration – have devised a plan that would give the president everything he has demanded, while keeping the majority of Democrats’ fingerprints off the most controversial elements of the proposed legislation.
The bill at hand is an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law intended to prevent misuse of surveillance powers by presidents in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The legislation passed the Senate with the majority of Democrats voting against it. The bill evoked heated disagreement between conservative and progressive Democrats because it would broaden presidential spy powers and would grant retroactive legal immunity for a broad range of companies that may have broken the law by participating in the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance programs.
Civil liberties groups and progressive members of Congress oppose immunity because it would cut off around 40 lawsuits against the telecoms – court cases that have been the only significant source of information about the administration’s surveillance activity. However, House Democratic leaders face mounting pressure to grant telecoms immunity, from the Bush administration and from members of the Blue Dog coalition – a group of conservative Democrats who often cross the aisle to vote with Republicans on legislation framed by the Bush administration as pertaining to national security.
“A capitulation on this point [legal immunity] would destroy a small flickering flame of hope by many citizens that Congress was not entirely in the pocket of lobbyists and could on this one occasion stand firm on a point of legal principle. If the companies and the White House were acting lawfully as they insist, there is nothing to fear from judicial review. If not, it is important to establish that this was an unlawful program,” constitutional law scholar Jonathan Turley wrote on his web site.
In what appears to be a calculated political maneuver, a plan has been proposed that would break the bill into two parts, allowing Democrats who are opposed to the immunity provision to vote against it without actually killing the bill.
The plan, floated on February 29 by an unnamed “senior Democratic aide,” would separate the part of the bill that expands spy powers from the section that grants retroactive legal immunity for companies involved in surveillance. Progressive Democrats who have been working to remove the immunity provision could vote against it without actually killing the bill. Or, as the unnamed aide said, the plan would “allow Democrats to register their objections to the immunity provision,” according to The Los Angeles Times report.
If the bill is split into two pieces, conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House could join with Republicans to pass the immunity provision, handing the Bush administration a victory while providing political cover for progressive Democrats and the Democratic leadership. Bush has warned repeatedly that he will veto any FISA update that does not include retroactive immunity for telecoms.
In a January letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 21 Blue Dog Coalition members made it known they supported granting immunity to the telecoms, and urged Pelosi to move quickly to pass the Senate version of the bill. (The 21 members who signed the letter are listed below.)
Members of the Blue Dog Coalition were integral in the passage of the highly controversial Protect America Act (PAA), a Republican-backed bill that greatly expanded spy powers in August 2007. The PAA was allowed to expire in February in the face of stark warnings from the Bush administration.
Spokespersons for Speaker Pelosi and for the Blue Dog Coalition failed to return numerous requests for comment on the situation.
ACLU lobbyist Michelle Richardson told Truthout she is concerned that House Democrats may try the same tactic they used to pass the PAA. “One possibility is that by splitting the bill in half and dangling the immunity provision in front of Republicans, Democrats could get a better spy bill passed. The other possibility is that they want a repeat of August 2007, where they put up two bad bills, and let the Blue Dogs off the leash so they could vote how they wanted, while a majority of Democrats could cry victim and claim they voted against immunity,” Richardson said.
The ACLU released a national poll conducted by The Mellman Group that showed only 31 percent support, among likely 2008 voters, for granting telecoms retroactive immunity.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday that the House would not vote on the bill this week.
Blue Dog Members Pushing for Telecom Immunity
Congressman Joe Baca (D-California) http://www.house.gov/baca/
Congressman John Barrow (D-Georgia) http://barrow.house.gov/
Congresswoman Melissa Bean (D-Illinois) http://www.house.gov/bean/
Congressman Marion Berry (D-Arkansas) http://www.house.gov/berry/
Congressman Dan Boren (D-Oklahoma) http://www.house.gov/boren/
Congressman Leonard L. Boswell (D-Iowa) http://boswell.house.gov/
Congressman Allen Boyd (D-Florida) http://www.house.gov/boyd/
Congressman Christopher Carney (D-Pennsylvania) http://carney.house.gov/
Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) http://www.cooper.house.gov/
Congressman Robert E. Cramer (D-Alabama) http://cramer.house.gov/HoR/AL05/
Congressman Lincoln Davis (D-Tennessee) http://www.house.gov/lincolndavis/
Congressman Brad Ellsworth (D-Indiana) http://www.ellsworth.house.gov/
Congressman Tim Holden (D-Pennsylvania) http://www.holden.house.gov/
Congressman Jim Matheson, (D-Utah) http://www.house.gov/matheson/
Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-Louisiana) http://www.melancon.house.gov/
Congressman Dennis Moore (D-Kansas) http://www.moore.house.gov/
Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-North Dakota) http://www.pomeroy.house.gov/
Congressman Mike Ross (D-Arkansas) http://ross.house.gov/
Congressman Heath Shuler (D-North Carolina) http://shuler.house.gov/
Congressman Zack Space (D-Ohio) http://space.house.gov/
Congressman John Tanner (D-Tennessee) http://www.house.gov/tanner/
Blue Dog Coalition web site http://www.house.gov/ross/BlueDogs/