Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., reiterated his intent to block the Intelligence Committee's version of a renewed surveillance law known as FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) if it includes immunity.
The bill is S.2248. There is a competing FISA bill from the Judiciary Committee which does not grant immunity.
An amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which would have stripped immunity from the Judiciary Committee version, was tabled this afternoon, by a vote of 60-34.
"Few things are more detrimental to this country than the erosion of and attack on the civil liberties we enjoy," he said. "This isn't a Democratic issue or a Republican issue; this is an American issue.
"If after debate, the Senate appears ready to pass legislation granting telecom providers retroactive immunity I will use any and all legislative tools at my disposal, including a filibuster, to prevent this deeply flawed bill from becoming law.
"More and more, Americans are rejecting the false choice that has come to define this administration: security or liberty, but never, ever both. For all those who have stood with me throughout this fight, I pledge, once more, to stand up for you."
Sen. Reid promised to keep the Senate open over the weekend in order to assure that a final bill is passed.
The original FISA law requires the government to get permission from a special court to listen in on the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States. Changes in communications technology mean many purely foreign to foreign communications now pass through the United States and therefore require the government to get court orders to intercept them.
The Protect America Act, adopted in August, eased that restriction. The bill contained a sunset clause, expiring February 1, to allow for more detailed debate before coming to a final bill.
Privacy and civil liberties advocates say the August bill went too far, giving the government far more power to eavesdrop on American communications without court oversight.
The White House, however, wants the law enacted in August made permanent.
A provision of the law which proponents deem crucial, however, relates to granting immunity from litigation to telecommunication companies who helped the administration spy on citizens without warrants, as if required by the Constitution.
About 40 civil suits have been filed alleging the companies broke wiretapping and privacy laws by monitoring phone calls and e-mails without permission from a secret court created 30 years ago for that purpose.
One such lawsuit was brought about after a whistleblower revealed the existence of a secret room at an AT&T switching station in San Francisco. Retired AT&T technician Mark Klein helped connect a device in 2003 that he says diverted and copied onto a government supercomputer every phone call, e-mail, and Internet site query made via AT&T lines.
President has said a renewed FISA bill is imperative to protect the nation's security. Yet he also said that he would veto any FISA bill which did not protect telecoms from such lawsuits.
Sen. Dodd said today that the Intelligence Committee version granting retroactive immunity "is a dangerous, dangerous step."
"I would object to retroactive immunity not just with this administration but any administration," he said today.
On Tuesday, Reid sought to extend the current law for 30 days, to give more time to debating the bills under consideration, but Senate Republicans killed it.
White House press secretary Dana Perino criticized Democratic plans for a one-month extension of the current law. "Look, there's been six months to hash out the differences. Actually, there's been a whole year-and-a-half worth," she said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chided the White House for wanting to have it both ways: espousing the importance of not letting the current law expire on February 1, and yet fighting against a one-month extension.
Durbin reminded Senators that the same administration which Congress must act quickly to updated FISA law in order to keep the nation safe ignored Congress for years about its surveillance activities, until its secret program was revealed in 2006 and "their hands were caught in the cookie jar by The New York Times," and only now offers to work with Congress to update FISA.
"Where have you been?" Durbin asked, rhetorically.
Those who supported immunity also spoke out on the floor today.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said the legislation providing immunity to telecoms was to protect them from lawsuits he dubbed "frivolous."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., said telecoms are unable to defend themselves in court because the government has prevented them from releasing documents pertaining to surveillance, and so they should be protected from class action lawsuits.
She told of one telecom's CEO who told her, "'I don't think that I should be put in jeopardy, or my shareholders or consumers, [for being] a patriotic American."