Top U.S. Democrat: accord near on spy bill, immunity
The House of Representatives may soon resolve a stalemate that has blocked efforts to renew an anti-terrorism spy law and shield phone companies from lawsuits, a key Democrat said on Sunday. ( Reuters )
Lawmakers may consider a compromise bill that would renew the law, which expired last month, and possibly grant some sort of protection to phone companies from lawsuits. But it would differ from a Senate-passed measure backed by the White House that would provide blanket immunity.
"We think we're very close. Probably within the next week, we'll be able to hopefully bring it to a vote," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes of Texas said of efforts to craft and pass such legislation.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said he wasn't as optimistic. "But I am committed to the idea that we have to work this out," Blunt said.
Reyes and Blunt made the comments in separate appearances on CNN's "Late Edition."
Many Democrats have opposed immunizing phone companies that participated in the warrantless domestic spying program begun by President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks, saying they first needed to know what the companies did.
Reyes said House Democrats were now reviewing confidential U.S. documents they received in recent weeks about the warrantless electronic surveillance program and were talking with phone companies.
Consequently, Reyes said he now had an "open mind" on whether to shield companies from lawsuits.
Congressional Republicans have backed Bush's demand for immunity and renewal of the law that expanded the power of U.S. authorities to track enemy targets without a court order.
Republicans have sought to crank up election-year pressure on House Democratic leaders to bring up for a vote a bill earlier approved overwhelmingly by the Senate to renew the law and grant immunity.
Democrats have pushed for a compromise between the Senate measure and a House-passed bill to renew the law, bolster the protection of law-abiding U.S. citizens swept up in surveillance and provide no immunity to phone companies.
Republicans have rejected compromise, preferring the Senate measure as now written.
The law expired on February 16. Republicans have warned that without it the United States is being placed at increased risk and its surveillance efforts compromised.
Democrats deny that, saying surveillance operations already begun under the law could continue for up to a year and that emergency court orders could be received for new ones.