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Eavesdropping Bill Stalls in Committee

LAURIE KELLMAN / AP | September 8 2006

President Bush's support proved insufficient to push a bill authorizing his warrantless wiretapping program through the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee's chairman, said the bill stalled because of election-year obstructionism.

"We have seen the incipient stage of filibuster by amendment," the Pennsylvania Republican testily declared as he called off a vote to move his bill to the Senate floor. "Filibuster by speech, filibuster by amendment. Obstructionism."

The target of his ire was Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who spoke against the bill for about a quarter of the panel's two-hour meeting and offered four amendments. Feingold, a possible presidential candidate, said Specter's bill would give the White House too much power to eavesdrop without a warrant in some circumstances.

"The president has basically said: I'll agree to let a court decide if I'm breaking the law if you pass a law first that says I'm not breaking the law," Feingold said. "That won't help re-establish a healthy respect for separation of powers. It will only make matters worse."

The super-secret National Security Agency's surveillance program, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, monitors phone calls and e-mails between terrorism suspects overseas and people on American soil. News reports in December disclosed the program.

The need for Congress to give legal status to the program gained a sense of urgency last month when a federal judge in Detroit ruled that it violated rights to free speech and privacy as well as constitutional separation of powers.

The administration has appealed that ruling, contending that the president, as commander in chief, is justified in taking action to protect the nation during times of war.

Democrats contend the White House is using the war on terror to expand the power of the executive branch beyond limits imposed by the Constitution.

Specter's bill was negotiated with the administration. It would submit the program to a special court for a one-time constitutional review, expand the time for emergency warrants from three to seven days and require the attorney general to inform Congress's intelligence committees on the program's activities every six months.

Opposition to the bill was no surprise. Feingold and five other senators, three of them Republicans, wrote Specter a day earlier complaining that a new version of his bill should be studied further before the panel votes.

Forced to delay his committee's vote, Specter grumbled that without his legislation the White House would continue its domestic wiretapping program virtually unchecked by the courts.

One such measure, backed by a group of moderate Senate Republicans, poses the biggest threat to Specter's bill because it would impose tighter restrictions on the administration's power to wiretap. The House, too, was considering a measure that would impose tougher checks on the president's power.

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