Immunity Issue at Center of FISA Fight

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Congress and President Bush continue their fight over the scope of the government's spying powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A Senate bill would grant retroactive immunity to telcom companies that cooperated with warrant-less surveillance. House Democrats vote Thursday on a bill that does not call for immunity.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Wire tapping is at the heart of the continuing fight between Congress and President Bush which goes another round today over National Security versus Civil Liberties. At issue is whether phone companies that shared customer's data with the government for years without getting warrants for wire tapping, should now get retroactive immunity from dozens of lawsuits.

The White House is pushing the House to adopt a Senate bill with immunity. House Democrats plan a vote today on a bill with no immunity. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: As they unveiled their latest proposal for updating the foreign intelligence surveillance act or FISA, House Democratic leaders defied President Bush's insistence on immunity for the phone companies. Here's Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers.

Congressman JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan's 14th congressional district): We are not going to cave in to a retroactive immunity situation.

WELNA: The reason, Conyers said, is simple.

Congressman CONYERS: We can't immunize against that which we do not know what it is we're granting immunity for.

WELNA: That's because the Bush Administration maintains its warantless wire tapping program involved the state's secrets, so most law makers have been kept in the dark about it and the phone companies themselves have been under gag order. The new House bill tries to resolve this impasse by letting a U.S. District Court privately review the orders the government gave to the phone companies to see if they were indeed legal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had warm praise for the new House bill.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada, Senate Majority Leader): I think it's a tremendous step forward, and I would hope the Republicans would recognize that.

WELNA: But at the White House this morning, President Bush flatly rejected the House bill.

President GEORGE W. BUSH (Republican, United States of America): This bill is unwise. The House leaders know that the Senate will not pass it, and even if the Senate did pass it, they know I will veto it.

WELNA: What's more, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said Democrats face punishment in the November elections if they keep defying the President on the immunity issue.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I think it's a serious mistake for Democrats to think that they can not be serious about security and then be taken seriously in November when it comes to the elections.

WELNA: Already a group calling itself Defensive Democracies is airing this ad on TV stations across the nation.

(Soundbite of TV ad): Senate Democrats and Republicans vote overwhelmingly to extend terrorist surveillance, but the House refuses to vote and instead goes on vacation, so new surveillance against terrorists is crippled.

WELNA: In the ad's kicker, the group targets House Democrats in specific districts such as Minnesota Freshman Tim Walz.

(Soundbite of TV ad): Tell Tim Walz that Congress must do its job and pass the Senate's Terrorist Surveillance bill to keep us all safe.

WELNA: But Walz appears unbound. Outside the House chamber he declares he's confident he won't be punished at the polls for opposing retroactive immunity.

Representative TIM WALZ (Democrat, Minnesota): I think that the confidence comes from the fact that we know what they're saying is untrue and I know that the administration has tried to spin this issue that's reckless and dangerous because there's many of us who have concerns with updating FISA, having the ability to listen to those who want to do harm to us, but we also know what they're saying is simply not the truth. So I think many of us are reflecting a confidence in that this crying wolf thing isn't sticking anymore.

WELNA: A member of the House Democratic Leadership Team, Rahm Emanuel, says the mood in the country has shifted in the Democrat's favor when it comes to national security.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): I think that the pendulum in finding that balance between what you've got to do to protect the country and what you've got to do to protect people's civil liberties, that pendulum is swinging back for the country as a whole and therefore you may be then finding out and members may be finding out from their own district a temperature that's a lot more calmer and more focused without a sense of nervousness.

WELNA: Even if the Democrat's Bill does pass today, it may go no further than the House. Still, it lets them claim as they go back to their districts for a two week recess that they are trying to resolve the stalemate on retroactive immunity.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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