Battle Lines Drawn on FISA Reform

Jan 24, 2008 2:46pm

ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf Reports: All the buzz up here is about economic stimulus, but senators are actually doing work on updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

And while there is bipartisan support for the economic stimulus deal, the partisan rhetoric on FISA is beginning to ramp up.

"Congress’ action – or lack of action – on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe," President George Bush said in a written statement Thursday.

The Senate rejected a version of FISA reform preferred by more liberal Democrats and opposed by the White House, voting to table it by a vote of 60 to 34 Thursday afternoon.   

A wide majority of moderate Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committee had passed out a long-term FISA update of their committee meeting. It includes giving retroactive immunity to phone companies that seem to have handed over Internet data and phone records to the intelligence community without warrants in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee has a more tempered version – the one which senators are preparing to table – that would strip that immunity out of the bill. It would also give the secret court set up by FISA to deal with foreign intelligence warrants exclusive purvey over arbating foreign intelligence gathering and sunset the FISA update after a number of years.

"Lets not be so frightened out of our minds by terrorism," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., just before senators began voting. "We go back to the situation we had when I first got here in the Watergate era when the government was spying on people… we don’t want to go back to that time."

The Judiciary Committee version will probably be tabled at 2 pm ET, placing Republicans and the White House in the drivers seat on updating FISA, but Democrats like Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., have pledged to try and amend the Intelligence Committee version.

Even some Republicans, namely Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, are uncomfortable with immunity for the phone companies. Specter is planning to add amendments of his own.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. – who recently ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination – has pledged to filibuster the bill if it cannot be amended.

A temporary FISA update was pushed through by Republicans and the White House this summer and expires on Feb. 1st.

Anything ultimately passed by the Senate will have to be reconciled with the House, which passed a FISA update bill last year that was more in line with the present Senate Judiciary Committee version.

Democrats had tried to put this debate off for another month and temporarily extend the bill passed this summer, but Republicans blocked the maneuver and forced the debate to occur this week.

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