House votes to approve FISA revision
Dem leadership leaves its party behind in supporting compromise

By Peter Duveen

PETER'S NEW YORK, June 20, 2008--After a lively debate in which a phalanx of Democrats voiced their strong opposition, the U.S. House of Representatives today approved legislation to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). But the Democratic leadership appeared to have left behind the majority of its party in siding with the Republicans on the compromise legislation.

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Hoyer: champion of consensus                        Pelosi: must have a bill                                        Conyers: won't go along

Some 105 Democrats voted for the bill, outnumbered by 128 in the party who voted against it. Only one Republican voted in opposition, 188 voting for the bill, demonstrating the strong partisan nature of the legislation and the power of the Democrats to easily sink it if they had so decided.

FISA requires court review of plans by intelligence agencies to spy on Americans. Early in its tenure, the
Bush administration, in an effort to bypass FISA restrictions, instituted its own surveillance program in concert with telecommunications companies. The firms have been sued because of their participation, and one of the key elements Republicans pressed for in revising the law was to grant these firms retroactive immunity from prosecution. The U.S. Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws that revise the legal structure for the period previous to the passage of revising legislation, but the exact interpretation of the constitutional proscription is open to dispute.

An earlier version of a revised FISA bill passed the House, but was rejected by the Senate. The Senate has passed its own version, and the differences in the two bills will be worked out in conference. A final version will be subject to the approval of both houses of Congress, and if passed, will be sent to the president's desk for his approval.

Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in remarks before the vote was taken, said she intended to support the revised FISA bill, she said she was not asking any other member of her party to support it. Still, finding herself in the minority in the party she leads must have given her some pause as to what side of the fence she was sitting. Pelosi defended her stand on the House floor, saying that "we can't go without a bill; that is simply not an option."

That, however, was not the opinion of the most outspoken among her party. While Pelosi had an advocate in Silvestre Reyes, D. Tex., Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., put up a fight to block the legislation. Conyers said the improvements incorporated in the compromise between Democrats and Republicans "don't redeem the overall provision."

He particularly objected to the retroactive immunity granted telecommunications firms that cooperated with the Bush Administration in implementing a program of warrantless wiretapping. He also objected to an "emergency" provision in the bill that he said would allow any U.S. citizen to be wiretapped. "I strenuously object to that," Conyers said. After his remarks, he introduced a lineup of fellow Democrats who gave brief speeches in between those of Democrats and Republicans who spoke in support of the bill.

"It is very difficult to put lipstick on a pig," Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Tex., told members of the House, referring to some of the improvements in the bill. She noted that as the legislation stood, the government could conduct surveillance for seven days without court approval. "This is not constitutional protection," she said. "I ask my colleagues to oppose this."

Rep. Bobby Scott. D-Va., objected to what he said was "mass untargeted surveillance of any and all conversations believed to come out of the United States." Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Ca., said some of the provisions allowed decisions to be made by the executive branch of government with a "judicial rubber stamp."

"Telecommunications are immune from suit," he said. "I cannot support this."

Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y., called the bill a "fig leaf granting blanket immunity" to telecommunications companies. "The constitutionality of the immunity granted by this bill" is questionable, he said. "I urge a 'no' vote on this legislation."

Rush Holt, D-N.J., said the bill was an attempt to "redefine the fourth amendment." He called it a "fishing expedition approach to intelligence protection."

Barbara Lee, D-Ca. noted how past government abuses by the nation's intelligence apparatus had "ruined the lives" of many citizens, and victimized Martin Luther King and his family. She objected to the sunset provision, which keeps the bill active for four years before expiring. "How can we do that? Four years is way too long," she said. "This bill scares me to death."

One-time presidential contender Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he objected to the "massive and untargeted" surveillance mandated by the bill. "Let's stand up for the fourth amendment," he said, voicing his opposition.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., supported the legislation, and lauded those responsible for striking a compromise. "We needed consensus to move forward," he said.  "No one gets everything he wants."

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