WASHINGTON – The House on Tuesday gave two more weeks of life to a law that allows the government more freedom to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists inside the United States, an attempt to buy the logjammed Senate time to pass a bill to replace it.
The Senate is also considering extending the surveillance law Congress hastily adopted last August when the White House warned of dangerous gaps in its surveillance authority. Civil rights and privacy advocates say the broadly written law allows the government to eavesdrop on innocent Americans without oversight from a court created for that purpose. The law expires Feb. 1.
Senate Republican leaders reversed their opposition to extending the existing law Tuesday, saying they would agree to an extension if the Senate can pass new surveillance legislation this week. That legislation, favored by the White House, includes giving retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that allowed the government to wiretap their customers without court permission.
Some 40 civil lawsuits have been filed against telecommunications companies. They carry with them a threat of crippling financial penalties, which the White House says could bankrupt the companies.
The House in October passed a version of the bill that does not provide retroactive legal immunity.
The Senate Republican offer to extend the current surveillance law was made Monday night. It could break a six-week impasse over an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that dictates when the government needs court approval to conduct electronic surveillance inside the United States.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that Senate Democrats would accept any extension of the current eavesdropping law.
"It is a legislative impossibility for us to complete this legislation by Thursday night," said Reid. "If the law expires, it is the direct responsibility of the Republicans."
He also said he would try again this week to get the Senate to agree to a 30-day extension.
The White House has threatened to veto any extension of the law twice this week, hoping its expiration will pressure Congress into swiftly passing a surveillance bill that includes telecom immunity.
"We don't need a patchwork of extensions. What we need is to get this bill passed," White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Tuesday.
President Bush plans to push for the law in a speech Thursday in Las Vegas.