In a blow to Democrats, the House of Representatives has voted to reject a measure that would have extended existing foreign intelligence surveillance legislation by three weeks. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the development brings more uncertainty only days before current legislation is due to expire.
The vote was 229 to 191, a surprising blow to House Democratic leaders who pushed hard for another extension of the Protect America Act, itself a revision of a 1978 law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance ACT (FISA).
In passing its version of intelligence surveillance legislation on Tuesday the U.S. Senate, voting 68 to 29, included a provision President Bush and Republicans have been seeking. It would provide immunity from prosecution to telecommunications companies that gave the U.S. government information without a court warrant after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Congressional Democrats fought against that, citing pending lawsuits against the companies, and asserting that the normal legal process should be allowed to run its course.
After a series of procedural delaying tactics by Republicans, the House finally got down to debating the Democrat's bill to extend the existing law past its February 16 expiration date, which would have been the second extension approved for it.
House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers said lawmakers should not be "stampeded" into approving permanent legislation now, saying more time is required to examine documents among other things.
California Democrat Jane Harman responded to Republican assertions that by merely extending the law, Democrats would be placing Americans at risk by depriving the intelligence community of crucial anti-terrorist tools. "This debate is not, as some on the other side want to characterize it, of Democrats wanting to coddle terrorists. We emphatically do not. We want to capture or kill them. It is beyond cynical to suggest otherwise," she said.
Congressman Lamar Smith was among Republicans making the allegation. "Another extensnion represents a failure by the House Democratic majority to protect the American people. The Senate understands this. The intelligence community needs a long-term bill to fix gaps in our intelligence law, not a 21 day extension," he said.
Earlier, President Bush challenged House Democrats to debate and approve the Senate-passed bill, saying the security of Americans is at stake. After a meeting with the president, House and Senate Republican leaders urged House Democrats to bring the Senate legislation to a vote. "The president is fully aware that there is a bipartisan majority in the House to pass the Senate bill.
We know what we need to do and now is the time to step up and do it in order to protect the American people," said Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. House Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer asserted to reporters that even if the foreign intelligence surveillance law expires, Americans will not be in danger and the intelligence community will be able to continue intercepting communications of suspected terrorists.
Expressing disappointment with the vote, Hoyer does not expect Democrats will attempt another short-term extension, although he wouldn't rule this out, saying Democrats will use coming weeks to work on a bipartisan bill acceptable to President Bush. "In the event that the Protect America Act is not extended, we nevertheless intend to use the next 21 days for the same purposes, that is to try to see if we can reach agreement between the House and the Senate, on a bill that would enjoy broad support in the House and the Senate,” he said.
At the same time, Congressman Hoyer renewed allegations that Senate Republicans "slow walked" progress of the legislation in that chamber, to put the House in the position of having no alternative but to accept the unacceptable provisions.