Democrats beat back GOP changes to spy bill

House Judiciary and Intelligence committees both approve legislation to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

House Democrats Wednesday beat back Republican efforts to change legislation aimed at reining in the Bush administration's spying activities, including denying retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that allegedly assisted the government.

The House Judiciary and Intelligence committees both approved the legislation to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Republicans argued that the bill would create burdensome requirements and give constitutional protections to suspected foreign terrorists. They also said the bill does not give the director of National Intelligence what he told Congress is needed.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee proposed substituting the bill with one written by the Bush administration, but the effort was rejected by a party-line vote. Republicans on the Intelligence Committee offered an amendment that would grant retroactive liability protections to telecommunications companies that allegedly assisted the administration with spying operations since 2001. But that amendment, too, was defeated. The Judiciary Committee also defeated a similar amendment.

The Judiciary Committee also adopted three key amendments including one from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., which would improve court oversight of the government's compliance with secret FISA court orders.

Another amendment offered by Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, would require the administration to get a FISA warrant whenever a "significant purpose of an acquisition is to acquire the communications of a specific person reasonably believed to be located in the United States" rather than waiting until someone formally becomes a target. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., offered an amendment to the bill's auditing and reporting requirements that calls for more information about data being collected in particular instances.

House Democratic leaders received what aides described as a surprisingly low level of push back from members at a closed door caucus discussion of the bill Tuesday night. But Democrats grappled with some differences over how involved the secret FISA court should be in overseeing the administration's spying activities.

Nadler, who heads the Judiciary Committee's constitution subcommittee, said some Democrats are apprehensive about the leadership's bill, especially since groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union do not fully back it. But he said it is the best option available. "You're not going to get anything any stronger through, under any circumstance," Nadler said.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., reiterated the Democratic leadership's stance that the bill strikes the right balance between civil liberties and national security. He added that the telecommunication liability issue can not be properly considered until lawmakers know what actions they are being asked to protect.

Some moderate Blue Dog Democrats, however, are pushing a potential compromise on the immunity matter, arguing for the adoption of a statute of limitations on potential crimes.

President Bush on Wednesday said he will not sign new FISA legislation if it fails to grant the government sufficient power to keep closed a "gap in intelligence" that existed before the statute was updated this summer.

In a sharply worded statement at the White House, Bush demanded that Congress make permanent the temporary FISA law enacted in August, which expires in February. Bush said it "strengthened our ability to collect foreign intelligence about terrorists overseas." Bush said the legislation must also provide retroactive liability protections to telecom companies.

Keith Koffler and Andrew Noyes contributed to this story.