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Republicans scuttle surveillance bill lacking telecom immunity

GOP lawmakers vote against temporary extension of a surveillance law that they say is vital for national security. Why? They want retroactive immunity for telecom companies included.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have scuttled an attempt to grant a temporary extension to a controversial wiretap law--that did not include retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.

By a 191-229 vote on Wednesday afternoon, the House failed to approve a bill to extend the Protect America Act for 21 days in its current form. The law--which Republicans say is necessary to allow interception of communications that transit the United States--is scheduled to expire on Saturday.

The vote, in which 34 Democrats joined the Republicans, comes hours after President Bush called for including retroactive immunity for any companies that may have violated federal privacy laws by opening their networks to the National Security Agency. Lawsuits against companies including AT&T are currently pending in federal court.

If the companies violated no laws, of course, they have nothing to worry about (even without retroactive immunity).

This leads to an unusual situation in which the House Democratic leadership, which has objected to retroactive immunity without learning more about what kinds of activities it would shield, has a few options:

1. Give Bush what he wants. This would mean admitting defeat and approving the immunity shield that the Senate already did on Tuesday.

2. Wait and try again. If the Republicans insist that this bill is necessary (which is hardly clear--we've survived for decades without it), the Democrats could hold another temporary renewal vote on Friday at 11 p.m. and dare the GOP to block this supposedly vital legislation a second time.

3. Let the Protect America Act expire. This is politically risky in an election year, of course, but the Bush administration's arguments for passing the law in the first place were based on partial, calculated leaks of secret court rulings. If the Republicans want the Protect America Act so badly, force them to negotiate on that separately from retroactive immunity--the issues really aren't linked.

And there are probably others that I haven't thought of.

It's a little unclear what's going to happen next; as I write this, the House has moved on to a not-exactly-controversial measure congratulating the New York Giants for winning the Super Bowl. We have a call into the House Majority Leader's office and will update you when we hear back.