Dems Fall Well Short Of Stripping Immunity From Spy Bill

An attempt to strip lawsuit immunity for telecom firms which helped the government tap phone calls fell well short in the Senate, leaving liberal Democrats on the losing side of what they believe is a fundamental civil liberties debate.

Only 31 senators _ all Democrats _ voted to take away retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies facing lawsuits over wiretaps carried out under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Sixty-seven senators _ a mix of Republicans and Democrats _ voted against the amendment.

The vote also provided an opportunity to showcase the key differences on national security between presidential candidates, as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.),  voted against immunity for telecoms, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.),  voted to keep immunity in the bill. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) did not show up for the vote. All three candidates were in the Washington area for the region's three primaries today.

There should be several other amendments to the FISA bill before it passes the Senate today, but the immunity vote was the critical issue for many Democrats, who believe telecom firms that helped the government carry out warrantless wiretaps should at least have a day in court. The Bush administration, almost all congressional Republicans and several moderate Democrats, believe that telecom firms should not be punished for responding to the federal government's national security demands.

Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said passage of the amendment would have allowed lawsuits to go forward and "disclose our most vital means of collecting information" in tracking terrorists. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), one of the lead sponsors of the amendment, said "it's a dangerous precedent to grant retroactive immunity."

Moderate Democrats like Jim Webb of Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted with Republicans on the amendment.

Senate passage will set up a contentious conference committee negotiation with the House, which voted against retroactive lawsuit immunity. The Bush administration has warned that it would veto any FISA bill that does not grant immunity.