WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amid a high-stakes battle over whether to grant telephone companies immunity, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed on Tuesday to extend for 15 days an expiring anti-terror surveillance law.
On a voice vote, the House sent the proposed extension to the Senate for needed concurrence. President George W. Bush was expected to sign it into law, a House Republican aide said.
Bush and Republicans have pushed for passage of a bill that would replace a surveillance law, set to expire on Friday, that expanded the power of U.S. authorities last August to track suspected enemy targets without a court order.
The new measure would tighten controls on these expanded powers. It would also grant retroactive immunity from lawsuits to any telecommunication company that participated in Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program, begun shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
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.
With the Senate tied up in knots over the legislation, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said, “The main issue is whether we have retroactive immunity to phone companies. That’s what it all boils down to.”
Democrats sought more time to consider the bill, with the current surveillance law set to expire in a few days. They also want to vote on a stack of amendments, many aimed at limiting or eliminating immunity.
The House agreed to extend the law for 15 days after Bush threatened to veto a proposed 30-day extension, telling lawmakers they need to act now.
Republicans back immunity, saying companies that helped protect the nation should be thanked, not punished.
But immunity foes contend the courts should decide if anyone violated the law. In doing so, they say, courts should examine what Bush did in secretly ordering warrantless spying.
Critics say Bush violated the law. Bush contends he had the wartime power to do what he did.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, said he was confident the Senate would approve immunity.
But Reid noted that even if the provision clears the Senate, it could run into trouble in the House. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill to bolster protection of privacy rights and refused to shield phone companies from lawsuits.
A Republican leadership aide predicted that if the Senate passed a bill with immunity, enough House Democrats would cross the aisle to give it final congressional approval.
Editing by Toni Reinhold