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Democrats plan last-minute FISA vote

House bill wouldn't shield telecommunications companies accused of unlawfully opening their networks to government spies. President Bush says he'll veto it if it passes.

Before Congress departs for its spring recess at week's end, the U.S. House of Representatives is trying to squeeze in a vote on what's shaping up as one of the most contentious bills this year.

That proposal, of course, is a Democratic bill that would make a number of changes to electronic surveillance law--but, much to the Bush administration's chagrin, would not grant retroactive immunity to telephone companies embroiled in some 40 lawsuits accusing them of unlawfully opening their networks to National Security Agency spies. In that regard, it's starkly different from the U.S. Senate version of the bill, which the White House supports.

For all of you following the debate at home, here's a copy of the 120-page text (PDF).

The House could consider it later on Thursday (right now, they're in the throes of federal budget debate) or on Friday. (If all else fails, the House is scheduled to be back in town on March 31.) The House Rules Committee has provided for an hour of debate, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, and no new amendments will be permitted.

Beyond the much-publicized lack of retroactive immunity, the new House bill and the approved Senate bill actually share some of the same language. For example, they both require an individualized court order for wiretapping conversations of Americans who are believed to be outside the country but represent foreign powers or terrorist groups.

But the House bill would also:

• Force the attorney general and intelligence officials to get the secret FISA court to sign off on its eavesdropping procedures before wiretaps begin. The Senate bill would allow them to wait up to five days after surveillance has begun before submitting those plans. (In emergency situations, the House bill allows the government a seven-day cushion before submitting those plans.)

•: Call for extra reviews of the president's warrantless wiretapping program. The inspectors general of the Justice Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Agency would have to report on how the once-secret, once-warrantless program operated. The bill would also create a "Commission on Warrantless Electronic Surveillance Activities," composed of nine congressionally appointed members, to conduct its own examination.

• Require courts hearing lawsuits alleging unlawful spying to consider all information, even if it has been alleged to expose "state secrets." The bill says courts "shall" review such briefings and arguments--taking any necessary steps to protect classified information--to determine whether telecommunications companies complied lawfully with eavesdropping requests.

Whether it'll become law is far from certain. President Bush on Thursday warned again that the bill is "unwise" and would surely get his veto.

Update at 2:44 p.m. PDT: There's a new twist in the FISA schedule. Upon request from Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has agreed to convene a rare "secret" session, in which politicians meet behind closed doors on the House floor to debate the bill. (Republican leaders apparently requested the procedural move because they believe there are elements of the proposal that shouldn't be discussed in public.) A Hoyer aide said the hour-long session will likely begin around 8:30 p.m. EDT. As of press time, no final decision had been made on whether the bill vote will occur after the Thursday night meeting or on Friday.