WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives abruptly postponed a vote on a spy bill on Thursday after Democrats agreed to a Republican request to hold a rare secret session to discuss classified security matters.
The vote was reset for Friday.
The bill would revamp a 1978 surveillance law and reject President George W. Bush’s demand that phone companies that participated in his warrantless domestic spy program begun after the September 11 attacks be immunized from lawsuits.
House Republican Whip Roy Blunt said he wants to privately inform colleagues how the Democratic measure could disrupt anti-terrorism efforts.
Blunt said several lawmakers with high-security clearance already had access to the information, but wanted to make sure all were aware of it.
“There are a significant number of elements of how the (1978) Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act works and ... specific examples of how their proposed changes would prevent it from working that I think can only be disclosed in a secret session,” Blunt said.
Several Democrats voiced skepticism, with some suggesting Republicans were merely trying to delay action on the bill that Bush has threatened to veto.
But Democrats ultimately agreed for the House to hold its first secret session since 1983 on Thursday night. The session was set to last an hour and begin after authorities cleared and secured the chamber.
“I have great respect for Mr. Blunt,” House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said in backing his request for a secret session. “I take him at his word.”
Other Democrats remained skeptical, however.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat said, “I have attended many classified briefings, and I have seen nothing that would justify the broad changes (in surveillance law) sought by the White House.”
“On the issue of retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that aided in the president’s warrantless wiretapping program, I doubt that anything can be revealed in the closed session that would demonstrate the need for anything other than what we have proposed,” Nadler said.
While the House bill would not grant immunity, it would allow phone companies to present their defense in a closed-door U.S. district court, with the judge given access to confidential documents about the surveillance program.
“I think that is the proper way to decide whether they should have immunity or not -- not members of Congress’ voting on it,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
About 40 civil suits have been filed accusing AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans swept up in the electronic surveillance of phone calls and e-mails.
Speaking at the White House earlier in the day, Bush said, “This litigation would undermine the private sector’s willingness to cooperate with the intelligence community, cooperation that is absolutely essential to protecting our country from harm.”
Bush’s demand for immunity for the phone companies has been a major stumbling block in getting the Senate and House to agree on a bill to replace a temporary law that expired last month that had expanded the power of U.S. authorities to track enemy targets without a court order.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation immunizing phone companies. But House Democratic leaders have refused to include immunity in their version of the measure.
Editing by David Alexander and John O'Callaghan