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Anti-Terror Surveillance Changes Fail in House


Legislation sought by President Bush to revise U.S. law regarding anti-terrorist electronic surveillance overseas has failed a vote in the House of Representatives. But the Senate later approved the White House-backed version by a vote 60 to 28 to expand the government's surveillance power. VOA's Dan Robinson reports the fate of the bill is uncertain amid intense negotiations between Congress and the Bush administration.

Although a majority of House members supported the Democratic measure,provisions of which were opposed by the president, the 218 to 207 vote did not achieve the two-thirds majority required to pass.

President Bush says the changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow more rapid and effective surveillance of overseas communications of suspected terrorists.

But he wanted Congress to approve the revisions without making procedures for monitoring overseas communications subject to approval by a special court.

Current law says a special court must review surveillance of suspected terrorists in the U.S., but does not address what the White House calls a serious gap, interception of communications that authorities believe emanate from foreigners overseas.

Intense negotiations with the White House broke off Friday, hours after President Bush urged Congress not to leave until the changes were approved. He said "It is important for the American people to understand there are cold-blooded killers who want to come to our homeland and wreak havoc through death. The people on this team, assembled in this building, see the world the way it is, not the way we hope it is, and this is a dangerous world because there is an enemy that wants to strike the homeland again."

Although there is bipartisan support for anti-terrorist efforts, Democrats worry that the changes could subject Americans to surveillance without a court warrant.

They also balked at giving President Bush's controversial attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, a role in surveillance approvals, and accused the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Michael McConnell, of making last minute demands.

Democrat Silvestre Reyes, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said "We worked in a bipartisan manner with the DNI to craft a bill, only to be told that it wasn't everything that he needed yesterday."

The Democratic measure would have authorized changes to the FISA law only for four months, something the White House had rejected.

Republicans such as House Minority leader John Boehner pointed to a letter from McConnell stating his opposition to the Democratic measure. "It does not give him the tools he needs to make America safe. We have made it clear we are not going to leave here in Congress until this gap is fixed," said Boehner.

In an unusual development, the intelligence director himself was present on Capitol Hill as the Senate debated competing Democratic and Republican measures.

After Senate majority leader Harry Reid expressed discomfort with McConnell's presence, another Democrat, Russ Feingold, said "I respect him. But the day we start deferring to somebody who is not an elected member of this body, or hiding behind them when you don't have the arguments to justify your actual positions is a sad day for the U.S. senate. We make the policies, not the executive branch."

Debate on surveillance legislation pushed Congress late into the night Friday.

The House returns Saturday to consider a $460 billion defense appropriations bill and numerous amendments, along with energy legislation.