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The Senate, in a high-stakes showdown over national security, voted late Friday to temporarily give President Bush expanded authority to eavesdrop on suspected foreign terrorists without court warrants. The House, meanwhile, rejected a Democratic version of the bill.
Democratic leaders there were working on a plan to bring up the Senate-passed measure and vote on it Saturday in response to Bush’s demand that Congress give him expanded powers before leaving for vacation this weekend.
The White House applauded the Senate vote and urged the House to quickly follow suit.
The bill “will give our intelligence professionals the essential tools they need to protect our nation,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. “It is urgent that this legislation become law as quickly as possible.”
Senate Democrats reluctantly voted for a plan largely crafted by the White House after Bush promised to veto a stricter proposal that would have required a court review to begin within 10 days.
The Senate bill gives Bush the expanded eavesdropping authority for six months. The temporary powers give Congress time to hammer out a more comprehensive plan instead of rushing approval for a permanent bill in the waning hours before lawmakers begin their monthlong break.
The Senate vote was 60-28. Both parties had agreed to require 60 votes for passage.
Senate Republicans, aided by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, said the update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, would at least temporarily close gaps in the nation’s security system.
“Al-Qaida is not going on vacation this month,” said Sen. Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “And we can’t either until we know we’ve done our duty to the American people.”
In the House, Democrats lost an effort to push a proposal that called for stricter court oversight of the way the government would ensure its spying would not target Americans.
“The rule of law is still critical in this country,” Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said before the losing the mostly party-line 218-207 vote that fell short of two-thirds majority needed for passage. “It is exactly when the government thinks that it can be the sole, fair arbiter that we most need a judicial system to stand in and strike the balance.”
“We can have security and our civil liberties,” Tierney said.
Current law requires court review of government surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States. It does not specifically address the government’s ability to intercept messages believed to come from foreigners overseas.
The Bush administration began pressing for changes to the law after a recent ruling by the special FISA court that barred the government from eavesdropping on foreign suspects whose messages were being routed through U.S. communications carriers, including Internet sites.
Democrats agreed the law should not restrict U.S. spies from tapping in on foreign suspects. However, they initially demanded the FISA court to review the eavesdropping process before it begins to make sure that Americans aren’t targeted.
By the final vote, Senate Democrats had whittled down that demand and approved a bill that largely mirrored what the Bush administration wanted. It requires:
_Initial approval by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The administration relented to Democrats leery of Gonzales by adding McConnell to the oversight.
_FISA Court review within 120 days. The final Democratic plan had called for court review to begin immediately and conclude within a month of the surveillance starting
_The law to expire in six months to give Congress time to craft a more comprehensive plan. The White House initially wanted the bill to be permanent.
Before the vote, Democrats excoriated the GOP plan, which Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said “provides a weak and practically nonexistent court review.”
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., angrily chastised his colleagues for bending to the administration’s will.
“The day we start deferring to someone who’s not a member of this body … is a sad day for the U.S. Senate,” Feingold said. “We make the policy — not the executive branch.”
Likewise, civil liberties advocates said they were outraged that Democratic-led Senate would side with the White House.
“We’re hugely disappointed with the Democrats,” said Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The idea they let themselves be manipulated into accepting the White House proposal, certainly taking a great deal of it, when they’re in control — it’s mind-boggling.”
It was not immediately clear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would endorse the Senate bill after days of rejecting White House offers.
“I hope that there are no attacks before we are able to effectively update this important act,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Bush has said he would reject any bill that his intelligence director deemed unable “to prevent an attack on the country.”
“We’ve worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats to find a solution, but we are not going to put our national security at risk,” Bush said after meeting with counterterror and homeland security officials at FBI headquarters Friday morning. “Time is short.”
Presidents have authority to call Congress back in session from a recess, but the last time it was used was in 1948, by Harry Truman.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called the administration plan “more likely to protect the American people against terrorist attacks by those who want to do us harm.”