House defeats stopgap extension of spy program

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 13, 2008 5:59pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a victory for President George W. Bush, the House of Representatives on Wednesday defeated a Democratic bid to temporarily extend an expiring spy law instead of replacing it with a new measure that also would immunize telephone companies from lawsuits.

Working against a Saturday deadline when the Protect America Act expires, the House voted 229-191 against a 21-day extension. Thirty-four Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat the bill.

Hours before the vote, Bush vowed to veto what would have been a second short-term extension of the bill.

He pushed for House passage of a bill approved by the Senate on Tuesday that would replace the law and shield from lawsuits phone companies that cooperated with the warrantless surveillance program he secretly began after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer stood firm in opposing to Senate bill. If the law expires it would not undermine national security despite Republican warnings to the contrary, the Maryland Democrat said.

Hoyer noted the administration could extend ongoing surveillance operations for one year and begin new ones with court orders.

While final decisions were not made, Hoyer said he did not expect to bring another extension to the House for a vote.

Bush told reporters it was time to end the debate, vowing: "I will not accept any temporary extension."

Democrats who control the House said they needed up to three weeks to review and possibly offer revisions to the Senate bill, which would extend the government's expanded powers to track communications between terrorism suspects without a court order.

The Senate bill would also shield telecommunication companies from potentially billions of dollars in civil damages and bolster protection of the privacy rights of Americans swept up in the hunt for enemy targets.

The House Democrats' chief objection has been the corporate immunity. They say the courts should decide whether companies violated the law.

About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. of violating Americans' privacy rights by helping the warrantless domestic spying program that Bush secretly began shortly after the hijacked airliner attacks.

Bush and his fellow Republicans would like to use issues such as domestic spying to paint the Democrats as weak on counterterrorism and national security in the presidential election campaign.

Bush repeated his warnings that enemies of the United States were plotting new attacks that would dwarf September 11.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, accused the administration of "bluster and fear-mongering."

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires that the government receive the approval of a secret FISA court to conduct surveillance in the United States of suspected foreign enemy targets.

But Bush authorized warrantless surveillance of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one had suspected ties to terrorists.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Donna Smith and Matt Spetalnick, editing by Vicki Allen and Alan Elsner)

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