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Republicans push for phone company immunity

GOP leaders hope to force a vote on a controversial rewrite of surveillance laws that would, if it became law, wipe out pending lawsuits against AT&T and others.

Republican politicians in the U.S. House of Representatives failed last month to persuade Democratic leaders to back a spy law rewrite that would immunize telecommunications companies that cooperated with allegedly illegal government spying. Now they're trying to force the issue.

On Wednesday, a number of Republican leaders, including Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.), began circulating what's known as a "discharge" petition, which they characterized as a "rare step." If they obtain 218 signatures from their colleagues, they say the Democratic leadership will be forced to schedule a vote on a version of the bill passed by the U.S. Senate in February that would likely wipe out pending lawsuits against AT&T and other phone companies accused of illegal cooperation with the National Security Agency.

"More than 66 days have passed since House Democrats allowed a key piece of terrorist surveillance legislation to expire--not because they had concerns with the bill, but because they were seemingly more concerned that not enough trial lawyers would be able to file enough expensive and frivolous lawsuits against U.S. telecom firms," Republican whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a statement.

Blunt was referring to the House's decision to let a temporary expansion of the spy law known as the Protect America Act, which Congress passed hurriedly last summer, lapse. The House did, however, go on to narrowly approve a rewrite of electronic surveillance law last month that lacked controversial legal protections for telecommunications companies that cooperated with allegedly illegal government spying.

Since then, the proposed revamp of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) hasn't gone anywhere, and the political back-and-forth has died down somewhat. Meanwhile, President Bush has threatened repeatedly to veto any measure without so-called "retroactive immunity" for phone companies. In the past, Republicans have argued that if the House Democrats called up their preferred bill, it would easily pass.

A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed the Republicans' petition as a "purely political move" and urged members not to sign it.

"Discussions on FISA are ongoing, and we hope to reach a compromise before Memorial Day," she told CNET

At a wide-ranging House hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller again urged passage of a bill that includes immunity for phone companies, arguing that "uncertainty" among the carriers "affects our ability to get info as fast and as quickly as we would want." He admitted, however, that he was not aware of any wiretap requests being denied because of Congress' inaction.