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Intelligence Bill Endgame Is a Work in Progress

It’s déjà vu all over again on terrorist spying legislation in Congress, with Democrats working frantically to pass a new surveillance bill and Republicans trying to make that process as difficult as possible in the run-up to the Presidents Day recess.

House and Senate Democratic leaders “will have to make some decisions in the next couple of days on how to proceed,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. The aide added, “There needs to be a process to negotiate with all parties involved. ... There are significant differences between the House, the Senate and the White House.”

That’s putting it mildly. As Senate Democrats remain poised to pass a bill late today that civil libertarians, along with many House Democrats, love to hate, no one seems to have figured out how the two chambers and the White

House will come to an agreement in the three days before the current revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act law expires on Feb. 15.

In the Senate, Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) appears to have enough votes today to beat back amendments that attempt to strip his bill of lawsuit immunity for telecommunications companies that aided the Bush administration’s original warrantless wiretapping program. That provision is the main reason President Bush is backing the Senate bill and threatening to veto just about everything else.

Because the immunity provision will likely remain intact, the House is expected to balk. The House measure does not provide immunity, and, in the eyes of the American Civil Liberties Union, provides better protections than the Senate for Americans who might get caught up in the wiretapping dragnet authorized by both the bills and the current law.

“How much are [House Democrats] going to stand by the work they did?” asked Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director for the ACLU. She added, “If they’re going to allow themselves to be bullied on that, they might as well close up shop and allow the president to call the shots on everything.”

So the question remains, what will the House do?

One House Democratic leadership aide provided a clue. “The general sense is that we’ve not had enough time with the documents to make an informed decision,” the aide said.

Those “documents” would be the highly sought-after papers the administration gave the telecoms in attempting to get their compliance with the warrantless wiretapping program. Democrats in both the House and Senate begged to see them for months, and while the Bush administration provided viewing to select Senate committees late last year, the House Intelligence and Judiciary panels were only given limited access on Jan. 24.

Taking more time to view the documents would likely entail another extension of current law, which originally expired on Feb. 1 but now expires on Friday.

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