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House passes 'compromise' spy law shielding telecoms

Representatives vote in favor of bill granting immunity to phone companies for participation in President Bush's warrantless surveillance program.

The House of Representatives on Friday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a "compromise" spy law that would shield AT&T and other companies from pending lawsuits accusing them of opening their networks to the government in violation of wiretap laws.

The major sticking point in the contentious rewrite of a 1978 electronic-surveillance law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, was whether to grant so-called retroactive legal immunity to telephone companies being sued for their participation in the warrantless surveillance program secretly begun by President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

Touted by Republicans as a "compromise," the bill, passed on a 293-129 vote, would not provide retroactive immunity, per se. It would, however, shift the debate behind closed doors, allowing U.S. district courts to dismiss lawsuits if there was written documentation that the White House asked a company to participate and assured it the surveillance was legal.

While expected to pass in the Senate next week, the White House-backed bill could have a harder time in that chamber, where a small minority is better able to block legislation from proceeding. Time is of the essence, as Congress nears a planned July 4th-week recess.