Telecommunications companies won a skirmish in the Senate on Monday as a bill to
protect them from lawsuits for cooperating with the Bush administration’s
eavesdropping programs easily overcame a procedural hurdle.
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What happens next is not immediately clear. A different bill, which would not
grant immunity to the companies, was also expected to be introduced by Senator
Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee. And
whatever bill emerges from the Senate may have to be reconciled with a House
version that does not include immunity.
The measures are meant to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,
legislation that has deeply divided the White House and Capitol Hill and members
of the House and Senate. Some action is necessary fairly soon, because the
current FISA law expires in February.
In his unsuccessful bid to block the legislation, Senator Dodd urged his
colleagues not to immunize the telecommunications industry for cooperating with
the National Security Agency’s secret program of eavesdropping without warrants.
The program was disclosed late in 2005 by The New York Times.
“For the last six years, our largest telecommunications companies have been
spying on their own American customers,” Mr. Dodd said. “Secretly and without a
warrant, they delivered to the federal government the private, domestic
communications records of millions of Americans — records this administration
has compiled into a data base of enormous scale and scope.”
“I have seen six presidents — six in the White House — and I have never seen a
contempt for the rule of law equal to this,” Mr. Dodd asserted.
Another opponent of the immunization measure, Senator Russell D. Feingold,
called it “deeply flawed.”
“This time around, the Senate should stand up to an administration that time and
again has employed fearmongering and misleading statements to intimidate
Congress,” said Mr. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.
But supporters of the administration’s program of surveillance without warrants
have described it as necessary to protect Americans from terrorists, and they
insist the program strikes a sensible balance between national security and
But not all of the 76 senators who voted to advance the bill necessarily agree
entirely with the administration. Some do, but others voted to advance the bill
so they can criticize it or offer amendments.
For instance, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, voted to
advance the bill because, he said, the issue is “too important to hold up any
longer.” Mr. Kennedy said he strongly favored the version backed by Senator
Leahy, who himself voted on Monday to advance the competing bill, rather than
the version that just advanced, saying that version would grant “vast new
authorities to spy on Americans.”Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the
ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he would offer an amendment
that would substitute the federal government as defendant in lawsuits, in place
of the companies.
“The telephone companies have, I believe, acted as good citizens,” Mr. Specter
President Bush has threatened to veto any measure that does not grant immunity
to the companies. The House version of the legislation, enacted a month ago, was
approved by 227 to 189, or dozens of “yes” votes short of the twothirds needed
to overcome a presidential veto.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, said he agreed to
have both Senate measures considered at the same time because “this process will
give senators the opportunity to fully debate the various issues.”
In addition to Mr. Dodd and Mr. Feingold, the senators who voted against
advancing the immunization measure were Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod
Brown of Ohio, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Tom
Harkin of Iowa, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and
Ron Wyden of Oregon, all Democrats.