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Wiretap Legislation Stalls in US Senate

Legislation to expand and renew a wiretapping law that expires Friday stalled on the floor of the U.S. Senate Monday amid partisan wrangling. Lawmakers are expected to seek a temporary extension of the measure later this week. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Senate Republicans who support of the legislation failed to muster the 60 votes needed to end debate and move the bill to a final vote. The vote was 48 to 45.

Majority Democrats oppose a provision in the bill that would grant legal immunity to telephone companies that have helped the government monitor communications between Americans and suspected terrorists overseas. They also take issue with a provision that would give intelligence agencies greater powers to wiretap without court approval.

Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and former presidential candidate, has been an outspoken critic of the measure: "It endorses possibly illegal spying on Americans and it strikes a harsh blow against the rule of law. I will continue to fight retroactive immunity with all the strength that any one senator can muster in all of this," he said.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky warned that not extending the law could leave the United States vulnerable. "We are now only a few days away from the expiration of the Protect America Act, days away from a situation in which the intelligence community will be unable to freely monitor new terrorist targets overseas. We are flirting with disaster," he said.

But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada argued that even if the current law expires, intelligence agencies could still monitor terror suspects' communications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "The safeguards are in place to ensure that our war on terror will not be adversely affected," he said.

The White House wants to grant permanent wiretap authority to intelligence agencies, and says President Bush would veto a proposal to extend the law by only 30 days.

The House of Representatives has passed its own version of the legislation, without legal immunity for telephone companies.