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Spy law showdown postponed until next year

Senate Democratic leader says more time is needed to finalize proposed legislation that would make telephone and Internet companies immune to lawsuits alleging illicit spy aid to the feds.

Update December 18, 4:43 a.m. PST: Adds more analysis and background.

Congress won't decide until next year whether to pass a complex law that would let telephone and Internet companies off the hook from lawsuits alleging illicit cooperation with federal government spies.

After a day of back-and-forth on the Senate floor, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged on Monday evening and announced he would postpone debate on the so-called FISA Amendments Act. That bill, which , would grant such corporate immunity and make it easier for the feds to snoop on phone calls and e-mails involving foreigners and Americans without a warrant, drawing rampant criticism from civil liberties groups.

The latest action is a blow to the White House, which has been pressuring Congress to enact a more lasting replacement , a wiretapping law expansion set to expire in early February.

"While we had hoped to complete the FISA bill this week, it is clear that is not possible," Reid said. "With more than a dozen amendments to this complex and controversial bill, this legislation deserves time for thorough discussion on the floor."

Reid added that he also continues to be opposed to the idea of "retroactive" immunity, which aligns him with many prominent Democratic leaders.

FISA refers to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 1978 law that the Bush administration argues is outdated, potentially hampering critical collection of foreign terrorists' conversations. Most members of Congress agree that certain legal changes are necessary to account for advances in communications technology. The intense rift lies in whether to make more sweeping changes, with the bulk of the controversy centering on immunity for corporate wiretap players.

Congress bowed to presidential pressure during the summer when it passed the Protect America Act, which granted many of the items on the administration's wish list. Republican leaders have generally backed renewing and expanding that legislation, but Democratic leaders say they're determined to insert more civil liberties checks in the newest version, which is intended to replace the existing law when it expires in early February.

Civil liberties groups that have sued the government, alleging privacy violations through the spying programs, proclaimed victory on Monday night. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, called the turn of events "a welcome holiday present for the American people."

Earlier in the day, however, it appeared more certain that the Senate would move ahead with a vote to approve the controversial Senate measure, which would provide legal immunity to electronic communications providers that have allegedly opened up their networks to the National Security Agency and other federal spies since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Above vocal objections from some Democrats, the senators nevertheless voted 76-10 to limit debate and other stalling tactics related to the bill.

But in the end, last-minute rallying from Democrats opposed to the telecommunications immunity provisions seemed to apply the pressure needed to derail the bill's consideration.

Sen. Chris Dodd
Sen. Chris Dodd

Perhaps most notably, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a presidential hopeful, devoted nearly the entire day to delivering one impassioned speech after another about his opposition to granting legal immunity to telecommunications companies accused of providing illegal assistance to government spying programs. Other influential Democratic senators, including Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), echoed his concerns at various points during the day, while leading Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch (D-Utah) and Sen. Kit Bond (D-Mo.) advocated for passage of the new legislation.

"Today we have scored a victory for American civil liberties and sent a message to President Bush that we will not tolerate his abuse of power and veil of secrecy," Dodd said later, adding that he would continue to seek support for an amendment he plans to propose to strip the legal immunity from the final legislation.

What's arguably more likely is some sort of compromise that retains the legal protections in some form. President Bush has long threatened to veto any measure that does not include retroactive immunity for communications companies, and he has shown no signs of backing down so far.