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 10-9 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 227-189, 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 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 NSA 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, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, will determine which proposals will be considered by the full Senate, according to a spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee.
“The full Senate will yet need to resolve the immunity issue,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement after the committee vote.
Even as 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.
Sen. 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.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in an interview after Thursday’s vote that he would support a compromise along the lines of the Specter proposal.
Whitehouse was one of two Democrats who voted against an amendment proposed by Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, that would have banned immunity for the companies. “I think there is a good solution somewhere in the middle,” Whitehouse said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who also opposed Feingold’s measure, pleaded with Leahy to defer the immunity issue because she wants more time to consider several compromise proposals.