Democrats Trip Over Spy Bill

Posted February 13, 2008 at 6:31pm

The intraparty squabbling among Democrats over whether and how to expand the government’s foreign wiretapping powers devolved into chaos Wednesday, when liberal and conservative factions joined with Republicans to defeat a 21-day extension backed by House Democratic leaders.

The extremely rare defeat of a House bill on the floor came on a 229-191 vote, after Republicans spent much of the day forcing parliamentary votes to protest House leaders’ refusal to allow a vote on a long-term expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed Tuesday by the Senate, 68-29.

Democratic leaders scrambled to come up with a backup plan after the vote and appeared resigned to allowing the FISA expansion law to expire at the end of this week.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) told reporters they were disappointed, but argued that intelligence would not suffer if the law were allowed to lapse.

“The old FISA law works and it works effectively,” Reyes said. “Things will be fine.”

“There is no danger” of impairing intelligence gathering, Hoyer said, ripping Republicans for “fear-mongering.”

Hoyer did not rule out another attempt to extend the law this week but said he did not expect that to happen. “We will be using the next 21 days to see if we can reach an agreement,” he said, regardless of whether an extension occurs.

Republicans argued that Democratic leaders were thwarting the will of the House given that 21 Blue Dog Democrats already have signed off on the Senate bill, which Democratic leaders prevented from receiving a vote.

GOP leaders also argued that Democrats potentially were endangering national security by fomenting uncertainty within the intelligence community and among telecommunications companies seeking retroactive immunity for their past cooperation with the government following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many Democrats, particularly in the House, strongly object to retroactive immunity.

“Today’s strong bipartisan rebuke of the Democratic leadership’s latest attempt to play politics with our national security is a clear sign that both parties — in both the House and the Senate — want to send President Bush a FISA modernization bill that he can sign,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Allowing the Protect America Act to expire would undermine our national security and endanger American lives, and that is unacceptable.”

Hoyer repeatedly sought to challenge the logic of Republican opposition to a short-term extension, arguing that if it was as critical as their rhetoric suggested, they should not prevent an extension from occurring.

But the House majority’s leaders saw their floor plan collapse when fellow Democrats refused to go along. Liberals who object to any FISA expansion defected along with conservative Democrats who wanted a vote on a permanent expansion.

Even if the extension had passed, Bush earlier had said he would not accept it and Senate Republicans hinted they could block it as well.

The issue long has bedeviled House Democratic leaders, who repeatedly have been jammed by their Senate colleagues passing bills shortly before Congressional recesses with little or no opportunity for compromise legislation.

Hoyer lamented that the House now has faced such “a take it or leave it” scenario for the second time.

House leaders would not have faced the revolt if not for the decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow the measure to move through his chamber.

Though Reid voted against the bill and publicly stated his opposition to the immunity provisions in the Senate Select Intelligence Committee bill, the split in his own caucus over the issue put him in a difficult spot. With Senate Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sponsoring rival measures, Reid established a “regular order” process for the bills — a scenario that ultimately favored the Intelligence legislation.

And once a filibuster-proof majority of the Senate voted against the Judiciary measure, the Senate essentially was on a glide path to approving the immunity provisions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) strongly hinted Wednesday that Senate Republicans would block any attempt in the Senate to pass another extension.

“There is a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives to take up and pass the Senate-passed bill in the House of Representatives now. That’s what we know. That’s what I hope will be done,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Senate Intelligence ranking member Kit Bond (R-Mo.) was more blunt: “A 21-day extension I don’t believe will fly.”

But Democratic leaders said they had a responsibility to ensure that civil liberties are protected.

Hoyer said Bush’s criticism that the failure to enact the long-term law could hurt intelligence gathering was “basically dishonest” because existing wiretaps would be allowed to continue under the old law for a year, and new ones could simply be approved by the FISA court, which no longer has a backlog.

A House Democratic aide blamed Rockefeller for siding with Republican positions on immunity and other provisions.

“I don’t think there’s frustration with Harry Reid on this, there is a frustration with Rockefeller. He just served it up on a silver platter.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.