The Bush administration won a legislative victory yesterday when the FISA bill that excluded immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the NSA failed spectacularly in the Senate, leaving the path open to the immunity approach endorsed by the White House. The version without telecom immunity only garnered 36 votes in the upper chamber despite the Democrats' endorsement of it. Twelve of their members joined 48 Republicans in voting against it:
The Senate signaled in a key vote yesterday that it supports giving some of the nation's largest telephone companies immunity from dozens of privacy lawsuits related to a federal domestic eavesdropping program initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In a lopsided 60 to 36 vote -- with 12 Democrats joining Republicans in the majority -- the Senate rejected a version of the proposed legislation sponsored by Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. That bill omitted immunity for the telecommunications firms involved in warrantless eavesdropping.
The move kept alive a competing proposal, from Democrats and Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, that would give the companies the legal protections they seek. It also underscored the deep divisions among Democrats on the surveillance issue. A measure passed by House Democrats would offer no immunity for the companies.
The vote marked a notable victory for the White House, which has pushed hard for telecom immunity.
The House has its own version in process which looks similar to the failed Senate approach. The robust rejection of the Democratic efforts to allow for unlimited lawsuits against the telecoms makes it clear that the House version has no chance of ever becoming law. They can hem and haw and stamp their feet, but the Democrats not only don't have the votes to overcome a cloture call in the Senate, they don't even have the votes to come close to a majority.
The Democrats have begun the second session of the 110th Congress much as they spent the first: in disarray. They put themselves on deadline for FISA reform by putting a silly six-month sunset on the last bill. Instead of working this out in the intervening time, they have waited until those six months have almost expired before finally getting around to a vote.
This puts them in the same position as they found themselves in May on funding the Iraq war. They have run out of time. A failure to extend the FISA legislation passed in August will mean that the NSA will have to stop collecting some data in real time, putting the nation at risk. That means that the House Democrats can't afford to stall the Senate into compliance. Their own deadline forces them into action -- and that gives a veto threat as well as strong Senate rejection all the more leverage.
The leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have led their party into another trap of their own making. It portends another long, disappointing, and embarrassing year for the pair -- essentially a replay of 2007, but with heightened scrutiny in an election year. If they wanted to make Bush look more relevant and more clever, they couldn't come up with a better strategy.