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House Democrats effectively thumbed their noses at President Bush today. They ignored Mr. Bush's veto threats, and passed a revamped version of a bill updating rules for spying on Americans and foreigners. Unlike similar legislation passed by the Senate, the House bill has no retroactive legal immunity for telephone companies. They're being sued for going along with the Bush administration's program to eavesdrop on Americans without court warrants.
NPR's David Welna has this report.
DAVID WELNA: Republicans demanded and got a rare secret session of the House last night to layout their arguments for granting retroactive immunity to the phone companies facing dozens of lawsuits. But they don't seem to have swayed many members. Last month, 21 House Democrats urged their leadership to do as President Bush wants, and simply take up and pass the Senate bill that does grant immunity.
But today, most of them voted for the House bill. Democrats shored up support by addressing a key issue - the inability of phone companies to defend themselves because the government says doing so would reveal state secrets.
New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler says under the provisions of the new bill, those companies can now make their case.
Representative JERROLD NADLER (Democrat, New York): It says you can go to court under secret procedures to protect the security of the state secrets. But you can assert your defense in court and get the case thrown out if you, at least, got the assurance by the administration in advance, which is all the law required. If you didn't get that, then you've no respect for the privacy rights of Americans; you don't deserve immunity.
WELNA: At least one Republican, former judge Louie Gohmert from Texas, grudgingly acknowledged Democrats did have a better bill.
Representative LOUIE GOHMERT (Republican, Texas): Now, I've read the bill, it's a better bill than the managers' memo we dealt with last time. It is. But we're still not there and we still haven't been allowed the enough input to make it better.
WELNA: What Republicans really wanted, said their leader John Boehner, was to simply pass the Senate bill that has immunity in it.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): Why do we want to deny the members of the House the opportunity to vote on the bipartisan Senate bill? I can probably tell you, that's because it would pass.
WELNA: And President Bush made clear yesterday that he has no intention of signing what the House passed today into law in the highly unlikely event that it passes the Senate as well.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The members of the House should not be deceived into thinking that voting for this unacceptable legislation would somehow move the process along. Voting for this bill does not move the process along. Instead, voting for this bill would make our country less safe.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; House Speaker): The president is wrong. And I think he knows it.
WELNA: That's Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She offered three possible explanations for why the president does not want the phone companies to go to court - either because the request for their cooperation were bungled, the legal basis was faulty, or because the surveillance far exceeded what lawmakers should've been told about by law.
Rep. PELOSI: None of these alternatives is attractive, but they clearly demonstrate why the administration's insistence that Congress provide retroactive immunity has never been about national security or about concerns for the company, it's always been about protecting the administration.
WELNA: Republicans charged the bill the House passed today merely provides a fig leaf for Democrats needing political cover as they head home for a two-week recess.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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