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Congress approves brief extension of wiretap law

Vote puts off decision on whether to immunize telephone and Internet companies from lawsuits alleging illegal wiretapping.

Updated at 5:05 a.m. PST Wednesday

The U.S. Congress voted on Tuesday to keep a controversial expansion of a wiretapping law alive for another 15 days.

The law in question, called the Protect America Act, was passed hurriedly by Congress last August and is set to expire Friday. The temporary extension, which passed by a voice vote, arrived amid strong objections from the Bush administration and many Republicans. But according to published reports, the White House plans to sign off on the measure.

The 15-day extension followed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's failed attempt on Monday to secure enough support for a 30-day extension of the law in his chamber.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, condemned the latest vote, arguing the "Democratic majority missed an opportunity to close dangerous loopholes in our intelligence laws."

But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a leader on the House Intelligence Committee, argued that that's a bogus argument. Nothing has been done to strip away the existing wiretapping law, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. And anyone who says otherwise is making a "bald-faced attempt to play the fear card and to jam Congress into gutting a carefully crafted, three-decades-old law," Harmon contended on the House floor before Tuesday's vote.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the latest vote was designed "only to avoid a headlong rush into possibly ill-conceived legislation."

The primary dispute among Democrats and Republicans is whether new legislation should absolve corporations of any past lawsuits alleging illegal cooperation with government spy agencies, such as the one the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed against AT&T. Conyers was referring to a proposed version of the wiretap-law rewrite that would do just that--and that civil libertarians argue gives the government overly expansive authority to snoop on Americans' communications without a warrant.

Earlier on Tuesday, Reid, a Nevada Democrat, pleaded for senators to support an extension of the existing law--regardless of the number of days, although he acknowledged favoring a "longer period" of time--so that senators can thoroughly debate the thornier provisions of the bill.

Further complicating matters, Reid said, is the House's schedule. Set to adjourn Tuesday evening and embark on a retreat for the rest of the week, the House wouldn't be in session to approve a reworked FISA bill before the Protect America Act expires on Friday, Reid said.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky countered by pressing again for immediate passage of a Senate Intelligence Committee bill that would grant retroactive legal immunity to corporations.

But ultimately, Reid was able to secure passage of the House's 15-day extension on Tuesday night by a voice vote, which means the battle over immunity for telecommunications companies is sure to begin anew.