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US House Puts Off Vote on Controversial Electronic Surveillance Measure

Legislation in the House of Representatives to revise U.S. law on anti-terrorist electronic surveillance without a court warrant has run into trouble in the House of Representatives. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, consideration of the Democratic-crafted measure to strengthen oversight by a special intelligence court was halted by Democratic leaders amid uncertainty about whether it could pass, and in the face of a veto threat from President Bush.

The House completed just over half of its scheduled 90 minute debate on the measure before recessing for an event honoring Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and later Democratic leaders announced there would be no more consideration this week.

Earlier, Democratic leaders had been somewhat confident the measure would pass, although without many Republican votes or a majority to overcome a threatened presidential veto.

The intention of the measure is to revise a temporary law Congress passed and President Bush signed last August. Civil liberties groups and congressional Democrats say that measure went too far in providing powers to conduct surveillance without a warrant.

Provisions and the debate over surveillance are complex, and the Democratic measure would not reduce the ability of agencies to monitor communications of suspected terrorists overseas.

It would require the government to seek special authorizations in the process, and require special steps if American citizens could be involved in monitored communications.

Democrats assert that by strengthening the court set up under the original 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and reaffirming it as the only basis for conducting domestic surveillance, they adequately protect civil liberties.

Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi:

"It rejects groundless claims of inherent executive authority," said Nancy Pelosi. "Under that we might as well just crown the president king and just say he has access to any information in our country and [that] he may collect that outside the law."

Republicans say Democrats would add burdensome layers of bureaucracy to the intelligence-gathering process.

Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson:

HOEKSTRA: "We have plenty of lawyers, we have plenty of legal frameworks that we need to go through, it is time to give our intelligence people the tools and the capabilities they need to keep us safe."

WILSON: "The bill that we are going to be considering on the House floor today devastates our ability to collect foreign intelligence on foreign terrorists who are trying to kill us."

Silvestre Reyes, the current Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says the measure strikes the right balance between providing tools intelligence agencies need and protecting the privacy of Americans.

"We have to balance it with protecting the civil rights of our citizens," said Silvestre Reyes.

The White House says President Bush would veto the legislation as currently written, and the president explained two of his main objections in a Wednesday news conference.

"The problem is that Congress arranged for the measure they passed to expire this coming February," said President Bush. "In addition the House is now considering another FISA bill that would weaken the reforms they approved just two months ago. When it comes to approving FISA Congress needs to move forward not backward so we can ensure intelligence professionals have the tools they need to protect us."

Electronic surveillance was also an issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday as it considered the nomination of Michael Mukasey to be the new U.S. attorney general.

Mukasey told senators he would examine the surveillance program carefully.

"Obviously I am going to need what the details are of the program, and I am going to need to know what actions are protected and how we go about enlisting the aid of private entities in doing this," said Michael Mukasey.

Inability of Democrats to achieve a vote in the House this week raises additional questions about its fate.

Any bill the House approves would have to be reconciled with a Senate version, with additional changes likely in that process.