By Chris Strohm
The Senate plans to take up legislation as early as this week to rein in the Bush administration's spying powers, even though major differences remain between members, and at least two Democrats are vowing to put up procedural roadblocks.
But any floor action on the legislation is expected to be crammed into an already tight schedule before the end of the year.
"I think it is extremely unlikely that it will be pushed off until January," one aide said. "We fully expect to deal with this in the coming work period."
Majority Leader Reid plans to bring to the floor a bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee to revamp the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, his spokesman said.
A second bill approved by the Judiciary Committee will be offered on the floor as a substitute amendment, the spokesman added.
By far, the biggest difference between the two bills concerns whether telecommunications companies that helped the Bush administration spy on U.S. citizens without warrants should be protected from lawsuits.
About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed against the companies.
The Intelligence Committee bill would grant the carriers retroactive legal immunity, while the Judiciary bill is silent on the matter.
Complicating Reid's floor schedule, Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., are vowing to use procedural tactics against the bills.
"The legislation does not adequately ensure privacy rights and grants immunity to companies who completely disregarded their responsibility to protect the privacy of their customers, specifically by turning over private records to the Bush administration," a spokeswoman for Dodd said Friday. "Until these issues are addressed, the senator will continue his hold," the spokesman added.
Feingold will object to giving unanimous consent to allow the Senate to take up the Intelligence bill, forcing a floor vote in order to proceed, his spokesman said.
Although floor action is expected to be tense, Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees have been meeting behind the scenes to try and iron out their differences before going to the floor, an aide familiar with the talks said.
"Everybody could agree on some sort of compromise package, in which case you could set aside the Judiciary bill," the aide said. "There are any number of ways this could proceed. We are in the midst of these discussions."
"Obviously, the question of carrier liability will have to be a subject of floor debate," the aide added. "We're not going to be able to work that out."
Feingold is also planning to offer amendments on the floor, which could include requiring the administration to get approval from the secret FISA court before spying could begin, his spokesman said.
As the bills are currently written, the administration could begin surveillance first, and then submit its procedures to the court for approval.
Feingold also wants to limit the scope of surveillance that the administration can conduct. For example, both bills would allow the administration to conduct surveillance in order to collect "foreign intelligence."
But Feingold says that definition is too broad and should specify that collection needs to target suspected terrorists.
"Congress needs to stand up to the administration to pass a bill that allows wiretapping of foreign terrorists overseas but protects the communications of law-abiding Americans," Feingold said in a statement.
Republicans and the White House generally support the Intelligence bill over the Judiciary bill.
"From the Republicans' perspective, the Intelligence bill is the one that makes sense and has the greatest chances of getting through here," an aide for Minority Leader McConnell said.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona led opposition to the Judiciary bill when it was being marked up in committee.
The bill was ultimately voted out along party lines.
"They managed to take a bipartisan bill out of the Intelligence Committee and turn it into a train wreck that lost every Republican on Judiciary," a GOP Judiciary aide said. "This bill is a disaster."
Privacy and civil liberties groups, however, support the Judiciary bill and are waging a last-minute lobbying blitz in the Senate to build support for it.
They particularly oppose granting the telecommunications companies retroactive legal immunity.
"Our bottom line is that the [lawsuits] need to move forward; that's the essence of our opposition to immunity," said Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's chief Washington lobbyist.
Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have said they want to craft compromise language under which the government would be substituted for the carriers as defendants in the lawsuits.
Under that scenario, the carriers would be protected while the lawsuits could proceed.