WASHINGTON U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell relented on Monday and said he would offer a short-term extension of an anti-terror surveillance law, set to expire this week, as he seeks immunity for telephone companies.
The Kentucky Republican made the announcement as he pushed for passage of a stalled bill to replace the temporary law, which expanded the power of U.S. authorities last August to conduct electronic surveillance of enemy targets without a court order.
The bipartisan bill would tighten controls on spying. It also contains a demand by President George W. Bush that any phone company that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program, begun after the September 11 attacks, receive retroactive immunity from lawsuits.
Nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating Americans' privacy rights in helping the government's warrantless domestic spying program.
On back-to-back votes, Democrats blocked a move to bring the bill up for a vote on passage, and Republicans stopped a bid to extend the law for 30 days.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, suggested the law be extended a month or more, perhaps even into the middle of next year when there will be a new president, to give both sides time to resolve differences.
"There is no reason to vote against an extension -- or for the president to veto one -- except for political posturing," Reid said.
"None of us want the current law to expire. But if it does expire because of Republican tactics, surveillance will not end," Reid said, noting existing operations approved under the law could continue until at least August.
After it was clear McConnell did not have the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate to clear a procedural hurdle and obtain a vote on passage of the bill, he said could agree to "a very short" extension of the law. "Republicans will not allow this critical program to expire and will offer a short-term extension, if necessary," he said.
With the law set to expire on Friday, lawmakers may agree on an extension of a week or so as early as on Tuesday, before House Democrats leave for an out-of-town retreat.
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)