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Phone company immunity wins Senate test vote

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush won a test vote in the U.S. Senate on Thursday on his demand that any telephone company that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program receive immunity from lawsuits.

Such a blanket protection, which has split Democrats who control the Senate, is included in a bill to tighten rules on the federal surveillance of suspected terrorists.

On a vote of 60-36, the Senate rejected an alternative proposal, which would bolster protection of privacy rights of U.S. citizens without shielding phone companies 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.

Senate Republicans filed a motion to force another showdown for Monday. They will need 60 votes then in the 100-member Senate to end debate and move toward passage of the bill. Democrats and Republicans agreed the vote would be close.

If and when approved by the Senate, the bill would go to the House of Representatives for needed concurrence. It would replace a temporary surveillance law that Bush pushed through Congress last August and is set to expire next Friday.

Immunity foes contend that the courts should decide if the companies violated the law. And in doing so, they say, the courts would examine what Bush did in secretly ordering warrantless electronic surveillance shortly after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Supporters of immunity contend companies acted in good faith to protect the United States and should not be punished.

“They relied on the legal conclusion of this nation’s most senior law enforcement official and they provided assistance because they wanted to help stop terrorist attacks,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who is a chief sponsor of the bill and a leading proponent of immunity.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, opposed immunity. He reiterated complaints that Bush violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in ordering warrantless surveillance.

Bush contends he had the wartime power to take the action, first disclosed in late 2005 by The New York Times. Bush put the program under supervision of a FISA court last January. Yet terms remain secret.

“They are not as concerned about the telephone companies as they are about insulating themselves from accountability,” Leahy said.

Editing by Tim Dobbyn

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