Panel Drops Immunity From Eavesdropping Bill
WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 - Reflecting the deep divisions within Congress over granting legal immunity to telephone companies for cooperating with the Bush administration's program of wiretapping without warrants, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new domestic surveillance law on Thursday that sidestepped the issue.
By a 10 to 9 vote, the committee approved an overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that dropped a key provision for immunity for telecommunications companies that another committee had already approved. The Senate leadership will have to decide how to deal with the immunity question on the Senate floor.
On Thursday night, the House voted 227 to 189, generally along party lines, to approve its own version of the FISA bill, which also does not include immunity.
But the administration has made clear that President Bush will veto any bill that does not include what it considers necessary tools for government eavesdropping, including the retroactive immunity for phone carriers that took part in the National Security Agency's wiretapping program after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Since the N.S.A. program was disclosed nearly two years ago, the major telephone companies have been sued by civil liberties groups and others, who argue that the companies violated the privacy rights of millions of Americans.
After lobbying by the telecommunications industry and the White House, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence agreed to the legal protection last month. Under a complicated legislative process, the Intelligence Committee's bill had to be considered by the Judiciary Committee before it could go to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
Because the two committees could not agree, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, will determine which proposals will be considered by the full Senate, said a spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee.
"The full Senate will yet need to resolve the immunity issue," Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement after the committee vote.
Even as Mr. Leahy sent the bill to the full Senate without dealing with the immunity issue, there were efforts by leading Democrats and Republicans to strike a compromise.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the panel, is pushing a plan that would substitute the federal government as the defendant in the lawsuits against the telecommunications companies. That would mean that the government, not the companies, would pay damages in successful lawsuits.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said in an interview after the vote Thursday that he would support a compromise along the lines of the Specter proposal.
Mr. Whitehouse was one of two Democrats who voted against an amendment proposed by Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, that would have banned immunity for the companies. "I think there is a good solution somewhere in the middle," Mr. Whitehouse said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who also opposed Mr. Feingold's measure, pleaded with Mr. Leahy to defer the immunity issue because she wants more time to consider several compromise proposals.
In the House, Republicans complained before the vote on Thursday that Democrats had blocked efforts to change the final bill through parliamentary procedures. Representative Dan Lungren, Republican of California, said the Democrats were playing "political games" on "one of the single most important issues we will deal with this year or this Congress."
The plan, Mr. Lungren charged, would tie the hands of the N.S.A. and give "greater protection to Osama bin Laden than an American citizen" by preventing intelligence officials from disseminating intercepts that had been inadvertently collected.
But Democrats and said their bill struck the right balance between protecting the United States from another terrorist attack and protecting the rights of Americans. The vote, said Representative Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, was "another chance to get things right" after what he characterized as the flawed bill that was hurriedly passed by Congress in August before its summer recess.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's bill was the result of a compromise between Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the panel, and the White House. Mr. Rockefeller agreed to the immunity measure, and in exchange won the administration's support for other provisions that would provide greater court oversight of the government's eavesdropping operations.
© 2007 The New York Times