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House's surveillance vote moved to Friday

After an extremely rare "secret" session late Thursday, the House still plans to take up a Democratic bill that would allow surveillance lawsuits against telephone companies to proceed.

After convening its first "secret" session in 25 years, the U.S. House of Representatives is preparing anew to vote Friday on a contentious rewrite of electronic surveillance law.

Democratic leaders had originally thought they might get to a vote on the bill late Thursday, but a last-minute request from Republican leaders for a closed session of the House delayed those plans. Congress is scheduled to go into a two-week recess after its Friday vote.

In a closed session--only six of which have been held since 1825--only those politicians who swear to an oath of secrecy are allowed onto the House floor. In this case, Republican whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) called for the extraordinary step in order to let a broader swath of politicians hear classified intelligence information he asserted was key to deciding which way to vote. (Normally, only certain members of the intelligence committee are privy to such information.)

The bill they're preparing to consider, an update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is opposed by the Bush administration, Republicans, and some conservative Democrats in large part because it would not grant retroactive immunity to telephone companies sued on allegations of unlawfully opening their networks to the National Security Agency. Democrats contend there's no evidence, classified or otherwise, that such legal protections are necessary.

After the session ended around midnight, both sides appeared as galvanized in their positions as ever.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he heard nothing new that would dissuade him from urging the House to support the bill that Democrats have drafted. Blunt, for his part, said the "constructive session" offered "powerful reasons" why the House should instead support a U.S. Senate version, favored by President Bush, which does supply retroactive immunity.

An hour of debate was scheduled to begin late Friday morning, with votes expected to wrap up during the early afternoon. Even if the Democrats succeed in getting their bill passed, however, the legislation would have to be reconciled with the Senate's version. President Bush has promised to veto anything lacking retroactive immunity.