Wednesday, February 13, 2008

FISA Fight Focused on Boswell, Blue Dogs

FISA Fight Focused on Boswell, Blue Dogs

Leonard Boswell prominently displays a "Blue Dog Conservative Democrat" logo on his House web page. And this week, his Blue Dog partners control the fate of federal legislation granting telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for cooperating with the government in warrantless surveillance.

Boswell and other self-described Blue Dogs
are bucking Democratic leadership and joining with House Republicans to keep the retroactive immunity provision the Bush Administration wants.

The Protect America Act, a stopgap measure, has been in place since a classified ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reportedly imposed limitations on the government's warrantless eavesdropping activities. The Protect America Act was meant to allow the federal government to continue ongoing investigations while Congress crafted a more permanent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and had a six-month sunset provision. That's set to expire on Friday.

On Jan. 28, Boswell was one of 21 Blue Dogs who signed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsing the Republican version of the FISA bill. The Senate bill "contains satisfactory language addressing all these issues," they wrote, "and we would fully support that measure should it reach the House floor without substantial change."

House Democrats passed their version, called the RESTORE Act (if you like acronyms, that's Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen, Reviewed, and Effective) passed 227-189 in November. The House plan does not include no retroactive immunity. Iowa's delegation split on party lines at that time, with Democrats Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack for and Republicans Steve King and Tom Latham opposed.

But President Bush says he'll veto any FISA bill that doesn't include retroactive immunity, and the administration has fought hard for the provision in the evenly divided Senate. Senate progress stalled in December thanks to an effort led by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who interrupted his presidential campaign two weeks before the Iowa caucuses to filibuster the Senate version until Majority Leader Harry Reid shelved the bill. Temporarily, as it turned out.

With Friday's deadline looming, Dodd and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) offered an amendment Tuesday to remove retroactive immunity, but failed on a 67-31 vote. Iowa's Tom Harkin supported the amendment while Chuck Grassley was opposed. (Of the presidential candidates, John McCain opposed the amendment, Barack Obama supported it, and Hillary Clinton missed the vote.)

Dodd called the Senate's vote "the single largest invasion of privacy in American history."

So now the action returns to the House. “There will be little, if any, time for conference” to reconcile the House and Senate versions, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. With 15 of the 21 Blue Dogs, the Republicans can win passage even in a Democratic House, but with seven of them, Pelosi and the Democratic leadership can block passage.

Democrats tried to buy time with a three week extension, but lost that vote 229-191 Wednesday night against a unanimous Republican vote. 34 Democrats voted with the Republicans. That included Boswell and the Blue Dogs, plus a collection of progressives who oppose the entire Protect America Act such as Dennis Kucinich.

Matt Browner Hamlin, formerly of Dodd's presidential campaign, examined campaign contributions and found that all 21 House Blue Dogs had received money from telecommunications PACs. Boswell got $5,000 from AT&T.

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