WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., Monday night abruptly withdrew legislation that would have granted the nation’s telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits charging they had violated privacy rights.
Democratic leaders had hoped to complete an overhaul of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before recessing for the year, since the current law governing the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program is set to expire in February. But in the face of more than a dozen amendments to the bill and guerrilla tactics from its opponents, Reid surprised his colleagues when he announced there would not be enough time to finish the job.
“Everyone feels it would be in the best interest of the Senate if we take a look at this when we come back,” Reid said.
The disputed measure would have placed the warrantless surveillance program under secret court supervision. But the most heated controversy surrounded the White House’s efforts to legally shield phone companies that had been helping the National Security Agency listen in on telephone and Internet conversations.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn. – a presidential candidate who returned from Iowa Sunday night to fight the measure – quickly claimed victory after the bill’s withdrawal, and he again vowed to “utilize all the tools available” to block passage once Reid calls it up in January.
“He blinked,” Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of Reid. “It’s clear that this was not going to be easy. On the one hand he wanted to rush this process and think he could strong-arm everybody to giving up their rights as senators. They threw sand in the gears.”
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the decision had nothing to do with the efforts of Dodd and his allies. Indeed, for most of Monday, Dodd appeared to be fighting a losing battle. His initial filibuster effort was steamrolled when the Senate voted 76-10 to take up the measure at noon.
Dodd vowed he will continue to try to scuttle the bill, which passed with bipartisan support out of the Senate intelligence committee, but he acknowledged “significant divisions” among his fellow Democrats.
“This is one of those critical moments,” Dodd said. “If this was the very first instance, you might say this administration has tried to follow the rule of law. But this is after a series, one after another, of this administration stepping all over the Constitution, assaulting it in many ways.”
The White House on Monday strongly defended its push for immunity and raised the prospect of a veto if Congress sends the president a surveillance bill without indemnity.
If the Senate reconvenes in mid-January, Congress will have just two weeks before the current, six-month law governing warrantless wiretapping expires. In that time, the Senate would have to pass its measure, then reconcile differences with a House-passed version that is far more restrictive on the administration’s surveillance efforts.