WASHINGTON – House Democratic leaders agreed Thursday to a rare closed-door session – the first in 25 years – to debate surveillance legislation.
Republicans requested privacy for what they termed “an honest debate” on the new Democratic eavesdropping bill opposed by the White House and most Republicans in Congress.
The closed-door debate was scheduled for late Thursday night, after the House chamber could be cleared and swept by security personnel to make sure there are no listening devices.
The last private session in the House was in 1983 on U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua. Only five closed sessions have occurred in the House since 1825.
President Bush vowed to veto the House Democrats’ version of the terrorist surveillance bill, saying it would undermine the nation’s security.
House leaders said they would vote on the bill today, just before taking a two-week recess. The bill would then have to be approved by the Senate.
Bush opposes it in part because it doesn’t provide full, retroactive legal protection to telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws. The lawsuits have been combined and are pending before a single federal judge in California.
The Democrats’ measure would encourage the judge to review in private the secret government documents underpinning the program in order to decide whether the companies acted lawfully. If they did, the lawsuits would be dismissed.
The administration has prevented those documents from being revealed, even to a judge, by invoking the state secrets privilege.