Bush Nears a Victory Over Spying Powers
By: Wall Street Journal
By SIOBHAN GORMAN and EVAN PEREZ
WASHINGTON — The Senate appears poised to hand the White House another victory with a measure that would make permanent an expansion of government spy powers and shield phone companies from liability for assisting government eavesdropping.
With floor consideration scheduled to start today, Democrats are split on how to cut back on the administration’s surveillance powers. The only option that appears to have sufficient backing is a bipartisan measure the White House has blessed. Opponents of the White House-backed bill are increasingly predicting a White House win.
If the White House prevails this week, it will be the latest example of President Bush’s ability to outmaneuver his opponents in Congress, especially on controversial matters of national security, despite his weakened public support.
Such a result will give Republicans the upper hand in fashioning a final compromise with the House in January, when Democrats may be more willing to compromise for fear of appearing weak on national security as election season heats up. The House has passed a version of the bill that doesn’t include telecom immunity. The Senate version is likely to prevail because it has Republican support, according to lawmakers and Congressional staffers.
“I’m predicting a rerun of the movie,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), referring to the hastily passed August law that temporarily expanded spy powers. “The Senate passes a bad bill, and it’s that bill or nothing.”
Democratic leaders in the Senate had hoped to avoid a repeat of August’s last-minute deal-making, just before lawmakers left for their summer break. Civil-liberties groups and liberal Democrats at the time assailed lawmakers for caving in to the administration’s warnings that failure to pass the bill would threaten its antiterror efforts. They also said the bill did too little to protect privacy rights.
That law expires on Feb. 1. “With all this time to prepare and anticipate, it doesn’t seem like that time has been put to good use,” said Caroline Frederickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “You’re going to have the Democrats split and that means the bill the administration likes is the one that’s going to pass.”
For telecommunications companies and the White House, immunity is a vital issue, albeit a contentious one. The White House says it is a must-have provision because it would stop some 40 lawsuits filed against companies alleged to have aided a post-9/11 National Security Agency warrantless surveillance program.
Administration officials say such lawsuits will bankrupt companies that were trying only to help their country. Phone companies have also been quietly pushing for blanket immunity, fretting that they are viewed as tools of the U.S. government.
Ms. Frederickson and some Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill fault the party’s leadership for its handling of the issue. House Democratic leaders passed a surveillance measure that emphasized court oversight and didn’t contain immunity for phone companies.
On the Senate side, however, key Democrats on the intelligence panel negotiated a deal with Republicans that gave the White House nearly everything it wanted, including immunity. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada attempted to assemble a version without immunity but ultimately decided to bring the compromise bill up for consideration.
Democratic and Republican opponents of the immunity provision have spent weeks trying to find alternatives.
But there has been little progress. One proposal from Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, would substitute the government as a defendant in several lawsuits filed against telecommunications companies. Even after Mr. Specter included changes negotiated with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the proposal failed to win the support of their committee. It will likely have similar problems in the full Senate.
Senate aides said Mr. Specter’s efforts to forge a compromise with Democrats continued through the weekend. Privately, phone companies have told lawmakers they could accept such a proposal, an industry expert says.
A spokeswoman for AT&T Inc., one of the telecom providers facing lawsuits alleging that they violated privacy laws, said the company is “fully committed to protecting our customers’ privacy” and doesn’t “comment on matters of national security.”
At Verizon Communications Inc., which is also defending against lawsuits, a spokesman declined to comment on the immunity proposal, and said his company responds “only to lawful requests” from the government.
Beyond immunity, senators are expected to debate proposals to infuse more court oversight into government eavesdropping programs. Many of those lack the support of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Suzanne Spaulding, a national security lawyer who has worked for both parties on Capitol Hill.
Senate Democrats have accepted that the measure they pass this week “won’t be great,” Ms. Spaulding said, so they will be looking to try to craft a better compromise in January when they confer with House lawmakers to resolve differences between their bills.
By then time will be running out, Democratic Rep. Harman warned. Last time, such deadline pressure was a great help to Republicans. “The thing will expire on Super Tuesday,” she said. “The clock’s ticking, everyone’s tuned into the primaries, and [Republicans] run out the clock.”
–Dionne Searcey contributed to this article.
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