Republicans successfully maneuvered to derail a Democratic government eavesdropping bill Wednesday, delaying a House vote until next week at the earliest.
The bill, which seeks to expand court oversight of government surveillance in the United States, fell victim to a gambit by the chamber’s Republican minority. Democrats were forced to pull the bill from the House floor with no certainty about how it might be revived.
A Democratic staff member said the bill would not be rewritten but substantive amendments may be allowed when it comes up for a vote, which is the Democrats’ intention.
The earliest that could happen is next week, as Thursday the House will be busy with an effort to override a presidential veto of a children’s healthcare bill.
The Democratic eavesdropping bill would have allowed unfettered telephone and e-mail surveillance of foreign intelligence targets but would require special authorization if the foreign targets were likely to be in contact with people inside the United States, a provision designed to safeguard Americans’ privacy.
Those so-called “blanket warrants” would let the government obtain a single order authorizing the surveillance of multiple targets.
Republican critics, however, said the blanket warrants would tie up intelligence agents in legal red tape, impeding them from conducting urgent surveillance of terrorist suspects. “Congress needs to move forward, not backward,” President Bush said at a White House news conference as the debate in Congress began. Bush had vowed to veto the bill if it reached his desk.
The House’s Democratic leaders pulled the bill after discovering that Republicans planned to offer a motion that politically vulnerable Democrats would have a hard time voting against.
The amendment would have said that nothing in the bill could limit surveillance of Osama bin Laden and terrorist organizations. While Democrats say their bill already provides that authority, voting against the amendment could make it seem as though a member of Congress were against spying on Al Qaeda.
Republicans sought to play down the amendment’s role in causing the bill to be pulled. Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the bill was losing moderate Democratic votes because it was fundamentally flawed.
Passage of the Republican amendment would have sent the bill immediately back to committee, effectively killing it. Key Democrats believed they were short of the votes needed to defeat the move.
“Our proposal gives Democrats a very simple choice: They can allow our intelligence officials to conduct surveillance on likes of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda or prohibit them from doing so and jeopardize our national security,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
The Democratic bill had faced opposition from the left as well. The American Civil Liberties Union has been waging a campaign against it, arguing it should require individual court orders every time an American’s communications are intercepted.
Some liberal Democrats shared those concerns, and “Republicans took advantage of a tenuous situation,” said Caroline Fredrickson, ACLU’s Washington legislative director.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) argued that the bill carefully balances civil liberties with the need for speed and flexibility in spying on terrorists.
The current surveillance law gave the government so many authorities “that people are not safe and secure in their own homes. The government can go in there and search computers and residences,” Reyes said. “This legislation corrects the deficiencies.”
Bush’s veto threat came in part because the bill lacks retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies. They have been accused in about 40 civil suits of violating wiretapping and intelligence laws by secretly providing the government access to Americans’ e-mails and phone records without court orders.
House Democrats have pledged that no immunity will be granted until the White House tells Congress exactly what the telecommunications companies did that requires legal protection.
The administration contends that without immunity the companies could be bankrupted by legal penalties.
The Senate’s version of the bill, expected to be released Thursday, is likely to include at least a limited immunity provision, according to sources close to the process who demanded anonymity because the measure was not final.
The measures would amend the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates when the government must obtain eavesdropping warrants from a secret intelligence court.
That law was last changed in August after the administration argued technological advances had made it too cumbersome and created a dire gap in its intelligence collection.
The updated law allowed the government to eavesdrop without a court order on communications conducted by a person reasonably believed to be outside the U.S., even if an American is on one end of the conversation -- so long as that American is not the intended focus or target of the surveillance.