January 23, 2008 / 10:40 PM / 12 years ago

Committee head sees approval of phone immunity

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate will approve President George W. Bush’s demand that telephone companies that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program receive retroactive immunity from lawsuits, a top lawmaker predicted on Wednesday.

“I think we will prevail,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, told reporters.

Rockefeller voiced his optimism as the Senate began what was expected to be at least several days of debate on the measure, which would also tighten rules on U.S. eavesdropping on suspected terrorists.

Top congressional aides agreed with Rockefeller’s assessment. Yet it remained uncertain if the Senate could reach an agreement with the Democratic-led House of Representatives on such legislation before a surveillance law it would replace expires next week on February 1.

Vice President Dick Cheney joined the fray, saying, “We’re reminding Congress that they must act now to modernize FISA,” the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, Cheney added, “Those who assist the government in tracking terrorists should not be punished with lawsuits.”

Bush has demanded retroactive immunity for any telecommunication company that participated in the warrantless spying program begun shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating U.S. privacy rights.

Immunity backers contend companies should be thanked for helping defend the United States. Critics argue the courts should determine if any broke the law.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and opponent of immunity, has promised an all-out fight.

“I would utilize whatever vehicle is available to a senator here to stop that (bill) from becoming law with retroactive immunity,” Dodd told reporters.

Sixty votes would be needed in the 100-member Senate to end debate and move toward a vote on passage of the bill.

Democrats have split on the issue of immunity. But Rockefeller said he expected to muster the needed support.

“It’s a pretty bad idea to appear cocky,” Rockefeller said. But he noted that the measure was approved by his committee in October on a 13-2 vote. “That’s pretty solid.”

(Additional reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; editing by Stuart Grudgings)

thomas.ferraro@reuters.com 1 202 898 8391

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