Democrats in Eavesdropping About-Face
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The White House urged the Senate today to adopt a major revision of FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The House passed the bill last week. A key provision would give retroactive legal immunity to phone companies. They're being sued for going along with a Bush administration program to eavesdrop on calls and e-mails without a warrant. The White House is likely to get the bill it wants.
NPR's David Welna reports that after a month-long test of wills, Democratic leaders have dropped their opposition.
DAVID WELNA: As the Senate began debating the House-passed FISA bill today, Republican leader Mitch McConnell had nothing but praise for the party that's in charge of the House.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The House Democrats have finally done the right thing.
WELNA: And as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller pointed out, there has been a major change of heart among his fellow Democrats in the House.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): Remember, this is a bill that the House would not even vote on, really, a couple of months ago.
WELNA: Instead, House Democrats passed their own bill in March without any immunity in it for the phone companies. They refused to hold a vote on a FISA update passed by the Senate that did provide such immunity. Instead, they negotiated a compromise they said had greater protections in it for Americans' civil liberties.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of 94 House Democrats who switched from opposing retroactive immunity to voting for the compromise bill. Pelosi spoke on the House floor just before that vote last Friday.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; House Speaker): If this bill is not - does not pass, we are most certainly be left with the Senate bill. I think that's clear. And this bill is an improvement over the Senate bill.
WELNA: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer led the effort to reach a compromise.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): I believe we have the best bill before us that we could possibly get in the current environment.
WELNA: Hoyer says he had to pursue a compromise, because if he didn't, a group of conservative Democrats would likely have joined Republicans and forced a House vote on the bill passed by the Senate. Many groups normally aligned with Democrats, though, are furious with what they see as a capitulation.
Howie Klein is treasurer for Blue America, an independent group that supports liberal Democrats in Congress. He insists campaign contributions explain some Democrats' change of heart.
Mr. HOWIE KLEIN (Treasurer, Blue America): Almost everybody who changed their vote, from February until last week, took large amounts of money from the telecom companies. And this, for us, is just a continuation of the culture of corruption that we got to know under the Republicans.
WELNA: In the Senate, Democrats backing the new FISA bill point out that a temporary fix for carrying out surveillance expires in mid-August. Here is California's Dianne Feinstein.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): So taking no action means that we will be opening ourselves, in my view, to the possibility of major attack, and this I think is unacceptable.
WELNA: And Barack Obama said yesterday that while he opposes immunity for the phone companies, he supports the FISA update because it keeps closer tabs on electronic surveillance.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): All the information I have received is that the underlying program itself actually is important and useful to American security as long as it has these constraints on them. I felt it was most - more important for me to go ahead and support this compromise.
WELNA: But that compromise deeply dismays Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): It's the same old story. It's been the same ever since, basically, 9/11. Wherever the - ultimately, the White House raises the specter of terrorism and even though it's clearly wrong in the merits, the -too many Democrats have caved.
WELNA: Some Democrats do intend to back Feingold's effort to strip retroactive immunity from the FISA bill, but too few to prevail.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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