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Key US Lawmakers Seek to Resolve Standoff Over Wiretap Bill

By Deborah Tate
15 February 2008

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is to meet with his House counterpart Friday to try to resolve the political standoff over legislation to overhaul wiretapping legislation before current law expires Saturday. President Bush is making a last minute appeal to lawmakers to approve the legislation, saying he would delay his scheduled departure to Africa later Friday if it would help advance the bill. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

A law that authorizes intelligence agencies to monitor, without warrants, telephone calls and emails between Americans and suspected terrorists overseas expires Saturday.

President Bush wants the House of Representatives to approve new wiretapping legislation passed by the Senate before the current law runs out. The Senate bill includes a provision that would give legal immunity to phone companies that took part in the Bush administration wiretapping program after September 11, 2001. Some 40 lawsuits are pending against phone companies for allegedly violating privacy laws.

The Democratically-controlled House has refused to include the provision in the version of the legislation it has passed, and the President has said he would veto any legislation that does not contain it.

In a written statement, Mr. Bush said the House's willingness to permit the current wiretap law to expire without passing the Senate bill will harm the U.S. ability to conduct surveillance to detect new threats to American security.

The Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, offered his own appeal to lawmakers during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. "We must get the new bill passed immediately if we are to maintain our capabilities to stop terrorist attacks against the nation," he said.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said if current law expires, it would not jeopardize the security of Americans. She noted that under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act suspected terrorists' communications could still be monitored, although court warrants could be required. "The new cases would be covered with underlying FISA act. They are covered in every way," she said.

That brought a sharp response from the Senate's top Republican, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "The notion that somehow no harm is done by allowing the law to expire is simply incorrect. In fact, it borders on outrageous," he said.

McConnell blamed House Democrats for causing a crisis.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said it was President Bush and congressional Republicans who were to blame because they refused to allow a short-term extension of the current law to give lawmakers more time to resolve the standoff over the new legislation.

On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Reid read a letter he sent to President Bush. "I regret your reckless attempt to manufacture crisis over the reauthorization of foreign surveillance law. Instead of needlessly frightening the country, you should work with Congress is a calm, constructive way to provide our intelligence professionals with all the needed tools, while respecting the privacy of law-abiding Americans," he said.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virgnia, is to meet with his House counterpart, Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes of Texas, in an effort to end the standoff. He believes that much of the problem is political, that House Democrats did not want to be pressured to accept the Senate bill without adequate time to consider it.

"There is something called human nature. It is not illegal to talk about human nature on the floor of the United States Senate. They have been jammed, they have been pushed down to a two or three-day period when they need to make a decision. They resent that. But if they were given a period of time, they would come, in my judgment, to where we are, and the bill would go to the president and he would sign it," he said.

Rockefeller played a key role in getting the Democratically-led Senate to approve the provision granting legal immunity to phone companies.

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