Senate Dems won't block FISA compromise

by Manu Raju, The Hill

Senate Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they would not stand in the way of a compromise overhaul of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), despite their concerns with the impacts of the sprawling measure.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said some Democrats are “not happy with that, but there may be enough to get a majority vote.”

When asked if he would whip his conference to vote against it, Durbin said: “I doubt if it’s going to be a caucus position.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) predicted Tuesday that there is enough support within the Democratic Conference to approve a contentious overhaul of the FISA legislation.

“If the bill comes out as I think it will, it will pass,” Rockefeller said before heading to a conference lunch.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would not support the bill but added that he knows others will.

“There has been some progress made, even though I have disagreed with the progress that has been made,” he added.

Reid said that he would not ask his members to vote against the bill and that he still had not reviewed the language, pointing out that negotiators have been saying for weeks that they had a deal on the contentious issue.

The latest development comes after Rockefeller, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the Bush administration reached an accord late last week to break a weeks-long stalemate over balancing electronic surveillance with the right to privacy for American citizens, according to several people familiar with the talks.

A deal is not final because each side is taking the bill to its respective conference to gauge support. But failing to enact a FISA bill would leave each side accusing the other of leaving the country vulnerable to a terrorist attack amid an already tense election year. Language could be unveiled as early as Wednesday, and final votes in each chamber could happen soon after, one congressional source said Tuesday.

The two chambers have yet to figure out a process for taking up a deal.

Reid said it would be “much easier if the bill” started in the House, but House Democratic leaders have asked the Senate to go first since passage is more likely in the upper chamber, aides said Tuesday.

The compromise, which is being finalized behind closed doors, attempts to split the difference over the hot-button issue of whether telephone companies deserve retroactive immunity for assisting in government surveillance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. According to people familiar with the draft, the language gives federal district courts a role in determining whether companies should be given immunity for the role they played in eavesdropping on telephone calls. Republicans had initially sought blanket immunity, saying that companies would no longer assist with government surveillance if they were being sued for their efforts. Democrats said that immunity should not be awarded to companies that were breaking the law.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said he would not accept a "fig leaf" on the immunity issue, but still wants to see the language.

The compromise has so far not satisfied privacy-rights groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union are planning a Wednesday teleconference to criticize the anticipated deal, which they call a giveaway to the White House and the phone companies.

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