Tim Starks
CQ Politics
June 24, 2008

Despite a deep divide among Democrats, the Senate is expected to clear legislation this week overhauling electronic surveillance rules that would grant President Bush much of what he has sought in a lengthy struggle with Congress.

With no senators threatening to hold up the bill (HR 6304), one of the last hopes for opponents faded June 20 when Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois announced he would vote for the legislation. Some civil liberties groups that oppose the measure had called on Obama to use his position in the party to derail it.

The bill to rewrite the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA, PL95-511) would almost certainly lead to the dismissal of lawsuits against telecommunications companies accused of aiding the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program. In the House, the measure passed with the support of 105 Democrats and 188 Republicans.

Senators agreed to take up the measure quickly and could clear it as early as Monday.

If the Senate clears the bill, it will give Bush much of what he wants in terms of spying powers and protection for the telecommunications companies.

“My director of national intelligence and the attorney general tells me that this is a good bill,” Bush said on June 20, shortly before the House passed the measure. “It will help our intelligence professionals learn our enemies’ plans for new attacks. It ensures that those companies whose assistance is necessary to protect the country will themselves be protected from liability for past or future cooperation with the government.”

Opponents Counted on Obama

With Congress on the verge of delivering the bill to Bush’s desk, some opponents had sought out Obama to take a stand.

“I would call on Senator Obama to be as vocal as possible in the coming days and weeks and lead his party on this issue,” Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said prior to Obama’s announcement that he would support the bill. The foundation has filed one of the lawsuits against the telecoms.

Obama voted against the White House-backed bill that passed the Senate in February (HR 3773), and his campaign released a statement last year expressing concern about that bill’s “provision on giving retroactive immunity to the telephone companies.”

While a statement released by his campaign acknowledged that the new legislation would probably result in immunity for the companies, Obama indicated he would support the measure but monitor its results.

“It is not all that I would want,” Obama said. “But given the legitimate threats that we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay.”

Obama said he would try to get the immunity provision stripped, but previous votes to do so in the Senate have failed.

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