Wrangling over intelligence bills delays floor action

Continuing disagreements prompted Senate and House lawmakers Wednesday to delay action on the fiscal 2008 intelligence authorization bill and a measure that would impose limits on the Bush administration's warrantless electronic surveillance activities.

It was far from clear that Congress would be able to complete work on the authorization bill this year. Complicating matters, the White House issued a veto threat against the bill late Tuesday, opposing a provision inserted by Senate conferees that would bar U.S. intelligence agencies from using any interrogation tactic not approved in the Army Field Manual.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders are struggling to devise a strategy for moving legislation that would overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Senators are at odds over competing bills. That includes a new proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to mix and match different provisions from competing Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committee bills.

A Reid spokesman said the Senate will not take up FISA legislation this week.

In the House, Democratic leaders postponed floor debate on the authorization bill, saying they hope to take it up Thursday. But lawmakers said the leadership might wait for the Senate to take up the bill first, an apparent tactic to counter House Republicans who oppose the ban on unapproved interrogation techniques, or torture.

House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., said House Republicans were planning to attack the bill on the floor by pressuring the House to send it back to the conference committee with instructions to strip out the interrogation provision.

But if Democratic leaders choose to wait for the Senate to act first on the conference bill, the House would only have the option of voting up or down on the measure, preventing Republicans from pushing a motion to recommit, lawmakers and aides said.

But getting the authorization bill through the Senate will be a challenge. Senate Republicans -- led by Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo. -- are adamantly opposed to the torture provision.

Hoekstra acknowledged Wednesday that completing work on the authorization bill could slip into January or later.

The wrangling over the FISA bill also threatens to delay Senate action until it reconvenes in January. Congress is working against the clock as a temporary overhaul of FISA expires in early February.

The bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee -- and backed by the Bush administration -- would give retroactive legal immunity to telecommunciations companies that are being sued for assisting in the warrantless electronic surveillance of U.S. residents from Sept. 11, 2001, until January, when the spying activities were put under the supervision of the secret FISA court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee bill does not provide immunity.

Reid surprised senators this week by proposing the option of bringing two new bills to the floor, each combining different elements of the Intelligence and Judiciary measures.

Only one of the two bills would include an immunity provision.

Reid's proposal was attacked Wednesday from all sides. Bond said both bills proposed by Reid are unacceptable and "would almost certainly draw a veto" from the White House.

A Reid spokesman cautioned that no final decision has been made on how to proceed. Reid still retains the option of bringing the Intelligence Committee's version to the floor, and offering the Judiciary Committee bill as an amendment, the spokesman said.

Bond said a manager's amendment is being negotiated to fix "two problematic provisions" in the Intelligence Committee's bill. One of the provisions, according to aides, deals with language requiring the administration to get court warrants in order to conduct surveillance against U.S. residents living or traveling abroad.

Conversely, 13 Democratic senators and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sent Reid a letter Wednesday urging him to make the Judiciary Committee version the main bill for floor debate. The letter was signed by every Democratic senator running for president.

However, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., did not sign the letter. A Leahy aide said: "The chairman was in discussions with leadership on this issue, so it wasn't necessary for him to sign a letter on the matter, but he is supportive of the letter."

The Judiciary Committee is also scheduled to mark up an alternative bill Thursday from Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would substitute the government as the defendant in lawsuits against the telecommunications companies.

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