In a move that could provide political cover to moderate Democrats as Members prepare to return to their districts next week, House leaders unveiled a new proposal Tuesday to expand the federal domestic spying program. Democratic leadership plans to approve the legislation this week, leaving the Senate to make the next move as lawmakers adjourn for a two-week recess.
Democratic leaders unveiled the newest proposal following weeks of negotiations that have failed to produce a compromise with the Senate.
“We are making a strong statement in sending it back to the Senate,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “What we’re trying to do is keep the process moving.”
The House’s refusal to bow to Senate and White House demands to include immunity for telecommunications companies that provided information to the federal government in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been one of the main obstacles in reaching agreement, and Democratic leaders continued to block such provisions in the new bill.
“We are not going to cave in to a retroactive immunity situation,” said Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.). “This isn’t a conference we’re holding [with the Senate]. We’re just holding meetings trying to push this difficult ball down the road a little further.”
The measure instead establishes secure proceedings for telecom companies to defend their actions in court, and to allow the judicial branch to address lawsuits pending.
In addition to the extension of the spying program itself, the House bill also aims to expand oversight of federal surveillance activities with the establishment of a bipartisan National Commission on Warrantless Surveillance.
The commission, which would be given subpoena powers, would be charged with issuing a report within one year on the Bush administration’s surveillance activities. House leaders said the commission would be modeled after the 9/11 commission, which investigated the attacks.
House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) acknowledged that the measure is not expected to win unanimous approval: “This is a good balance. Not everyone is going to be happy with it.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he met with the liberal Progressive Caucus and expected the measure would pass the House, even as its future in the Senate remains unclear.
“There is great support among those Members we met with for this legislation, and you heard in the meeting of the Caucus that there is great support for this,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn acknowledged that he has also addressed the moderate and conservative Members of the Blue Dog Coalition, many of whom have endorsed the Senate legislation and have pressed House leaders to take action on the bill before the recess.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the bill should reach the floor Thursday.
Republicans immediately dismissed the proposal, reiterating demands for the House to take up Senate legislation that includes immunity for the telecom corporations.
In protest of Democrats’ refusal to do so, GOP lawmakers disrupted the House schedule Tuesday, calling for motions to adjourn the chamber throughout the day.
“It is clear that the House Democratic leadership has no intention of doing what’s right and giving our intelligence officials every tool they need to protect the American people,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). He later added: “It’s time for rank-and-file Democrats to demand that their leaders to put our national security first and allow an up-or-down vote on the bipartisan Senate FISA bill. This latest proposal from House Democratic leaders is a sham, and it is clearly unacceptable to the U.S. Senate, the president and the American people.”
The White House similarly disparaged the Democratic plan, calling it “dead on arrival.”
“The priorities of House leaders are dangerously misplaced,” said a statement released by the Bush administration. “Instead of providing liability protection to companies that did their patriotic duty, House leaders would establish a commission to examine intelligence activities in the past that helped protect the country from further attacks after 9/11.”
Conyers dismissed Republican criticism, including President Bush’s earlier threat to veto any plan that doesn’t include immunity for the communications companies.
“It’s our best way to resolve the matter, notwithstanding the president’s threat,” Conyers said.
Citing concerns over the proposed independent commission as well as other changes to the FISA bill, Republicans could attempt to force a closed session of the House today to discuss the spy program out of the public eye.
“We are pushing for a closed session,” said one GOP leadership aide, who asked not to be identified. Any Member can request a closed session of the House by offering a privileged resolution on the chamber’s floor. That action prompts an immediate vote and requires a majority of the House to approve the action.
If Republicans pursue such a strategy, Democratic leaders are expected to urge Members to oppose the motion. Moderate Democrats earlier proposed a similar closed session but were rebuffed by leadership.
In the meantime, House Democrats were expected to vote on an ethics reform measure late Tuesday night but had not done so at press time.
The proposal, which would establish an independent office to investigate complaints and issue recommendations to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans and prompted leaders to scrub the measure from the House schedule twice in recent weeks.
Democratic leaders, lead by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), executed an intense lobbying campaign in recent days but remained uncertain of its success early Tuesday afternoon. “We’re getting there,” Clyburn said.