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Senators shelve vote to shield corporate wiretap collaborators

Key panel to wait until next week to debate contentious bill that, in current form, would crush lawsuits against companies accused of illegal cooperation with the government.

Update 12:42 p.m. PST: A key U.S. Senate panel on Thursday pushed back a hotly anticipated vote on a new proposal to shield telephone and Internet companies from lawsuits alleging illicit cooperation with federal spying programs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had planned to consider the bill, known as the FISA Amendments Act, at its morning business meeting. The lengthy measure, among other things, would effectively crush the pending lawsuits against companies like AT&T and Verizon, as well as some ongoing investigations by state utility commissions into their practices. It was already approved by a 13-2 vote recently during a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But no debate occurred and no votes were held in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, primarily because Republican ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) said he and his colleagues hadn't had enough time to review a batch of Democratic amendments circulated Wednesday night, according to committee aides.

The plan now is to consider the bill next week instead, giving the committee members more time to review proposed amendments and, if they're lucky, work out their lingering differences.

Congressional Democrats are in somewhat of a hurry to pass a new bill to replace a temporary rewrite of federal wiretapping law--as it pertains to electronic communications between foreigners and U.S. persons--that passed in August. Many of them argue the White House-backed law, set to expire in early February, was rammed through without proper checks on executive power and poses grave constitutional concerns.

The Bush administration, backed by many Republican politicians, has made it clear that it wants that law made permanent and has also indicated it will accept nothing less than total immunity (or "amnesty," as some skeptical Democrats have taken to calling it) for any companies that allegedly cooperated with its surveillance agents in the past.

An alternative idea that's been kicking around, albeit with seemingly limited support so far, is granting "indemnity" to the companies, meaning they could still be sued, but the government--or in other words, taxpayers--would foot the bill for damages.

Specter, who made the pitch for indemnification, said on Thursday that, unlike most of his Republican colleagues, he still vehemently disagrees with complete immunity from court action. But he said he's now leaning more toward a third, related possibility: "substitution," in which government lawyers would formally take the place of the telephone company or other parties being sued in the cases. That approach would still result in taxpayer dollars being spent to defend against the claims, and the Justice Department has in recent testimony to the committee.

"As I've said publicly before, I'm sympathetic to the telephone companies," Specter said, according to a transcript provided by a Republican aide. "I think they have been good citizens, and I'd like to see them not prejudiced and not harmed."