Work continues on spying bills despite veto threats

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers clashed Thursday in a blizzard of activity over bills that would restrict the Bush administration's spying powers, even as the White House lobbed veto threats against the measures.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee had successfully amended a bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last month to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act while defeating Republican efforts to change the bill. The committee was expected to continue working on the bill Thursday afternoon, including a debate about immunity for telecommunications companies that reportedly helped the Bush administration spy on terrorism suspects without warrants.

House Democrats, meanwhile, moved their FISA bill back to the floor and successfully adopted a "closed rule" for debate that prohibits Republicans from offering changes. House debate on the bill also is expected to resume later Thursday.

Over objections of Republicans and the White House, Senate Judiciary Democrats changed the first title of the Intelligence Committee's bill. On a party-line 10-9 vote, substitute language drafted by Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other Democrats was approved.

"What we've done in this substitute is try to add critical protections and make the job of the FISA court meaningful," Leahy said. The White House issued a letter late Wednesday vowing to veto the bill over the substitute language. Leahy said the White House objections mainly referred to language from last week, which he said was changed.

But Judiciary Republicans complained that Democrats' new language was not circulated until late Wednesday. "It's a little hard to review something in depth that's 55 pages long and immediately crank out a letter in response to that," said Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "This substitute was not put together in consultation with members of the minority."

Democrats also approved an amendment that would require all FISA revisions to expire in four years. They approved another amendment that would clarify that the administration can only conduct warrantless surveillance against someone reasonably believed to be outside the United States when the "significant purpose" is to collect foreign intelligence information.

Partisan debate also erupted in the House. Disagreement over the debate rules showed that the bill is no less divisive than it was several weeks ago. Republicans could offer a procedural motion to recommit the bill to committee, which previously divided Democrats and derailed the bill.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, unveiled substitute language Wednesday aimed at addressing those concerns. But the White House said it would veto the new bill.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said the reworked bill "will ensure that it is the courts -- and not an executive branch political appointee -- who decides whether or not the communications of an American citizen can be seized and searched, and that such seizures and searches must be done pursuant to a court order."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., criticized Democrats for not giving the minority a chance to offer input on revisions to the measure in the weeks since it was last on the floor. Their "take-it-or-leave-it strategy on this bill is dangerous and is destined to fail," he said.

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