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Senate Passes FISA Bill with Immunity for Telecoms
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Senate Passes FISA Bill with Immunity for Telecoms

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Senate Passes FISA Bill with Immunity for Telecoms
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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

A standoff in the Senate over expanding the government's eavesdropping powers is finally coming to a conclusion. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama left the campaign trail to join in a series of votes to amend the wiretapping bill backed by the White House. The measure would provide greater protections for Americans targeted for surveillance. It would also give legal immunity to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

NPR's David Welna, reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: What happened in the Senate today was a victory for both the White House and the Senate Intelligence Committee which drew up a legislation revising the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA but it was a resounding defeat for the Senate Judiciary Committee, some of whose members tried in a series of amendments toad more oversight and other restrictions to the bill and failed on every attempt.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate showed good judgment.

MITCH MCCONNELL: All of the amendments that would have drawn a presidential veto were defeated this morning on the floor of the Senate.

WELNA: Majority Leader Harry Reid, though, was clearly unhappy about the outcome.

HARRY REID: I don't think this should be a day of celebration; this should be a day of concern to the American people.

WELNA: Reid acknowledged his fellow Democrats were divided over the spying legislation which is meant to replace a temporary bill that expires on Saturday. Nowhere were they more split than on the question of granting retroactive immunity to 16 U.S. phone companies. They're being sued for letting the government tap into their customers' communications during most of the Bush administration with no court order as the law requires.

Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd led the effort to strip that retroactive immunity from the Intelligence Committee's bill. He said it's clear what the phone companies allowed the government to do.

CHRISTOPHER DODD: To really vacuum clean up everything that came in probably the single, largest invasion of privacy in the history of our country - all done without a warrant, without a court order.

WELNA: Still, 18 members of the Democratic caucus joined every Republican in voting the keep the immunity provision in the bill. Kit Bond whose the intelligence panel's top Republican called such immunity crucial for preventing terrorist attacks.

CHRISTOPHER BOND: If we permit the carriers who may or may not participated in this to be sued in court then the most important partners of government has, the private sector, will be discouraged from assisting in us in the future.

WELNA: Members of both parties agreed the new bill improves on the current temporary law hastily passed last summer in one important way. It no longer allows surveillance of Americans who are overseas without first going to a special FISA court in getting a finding of probable cause.

Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said that alone was enough to win his support for the entire bill.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I represent Rhode Islanders who may go overseas and I want to be able to assure them that they're not going to be targeted by this administration for surveillance without a court signing off on it and that is accomplished.

WELNA: But one big problem remains, the intelligence overhaul passed by the House does not provide immunity to the phone companies. And the clock is fast running out for reconciling the two chambers' differences before sending the bill to the White House.

Minority Leader McConnell rejected Majority Leader Reid's call for another extension of the current law and he urged the House to simply approve the Senate's bill.

MCCONNELL: There's still three days to go on the current extension. So I think it's a bit premature to be talking about extension we hope the House will take a look at this bill and find that acceptable.

WELNA: But that's an unlikely scenario. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers sent a letter to the White House today calling immunity for the phone companies unjustified.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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