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September 23, 2021

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Reid in hot seat over backing of spying bill

Critics say he’s siding with GOP; he says he can’t get measure he wants

Sen. Harry Reid angered liberals in his party last month as he sought to shield telecom companies from liability for their role in the Bush administration’s domestic spying program.

As the Senate debates the surveillance issue this week, the criticism of Reid shows that his role is putting him at odds with his party’s base.

Reid says he personally opposes immunity for the phone companies that cooperated with the government and prefers stronger civil rights protections for citizens, as provided by one of the bills now before the Senate. But as leader of the Senate, Reid embodies the Democrats’ apparent inability to stop a competing bill that essentially gives the Bush administration authority to continue eavesdropping on Americans and lets the telecoms off the hook.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said the organization is targeting Reid by name in its materials advocating a tougher bill. “Actions speak louder than words,” she said. “If he really opposes telecom immunity, he needs to show it. And we haven’t seen it.”

Fredrickson said she believes Reid is leading the Democrats in a way that is not only out of step with the party’s base, but with most Americans. The ACLU released a poll this week conducted, incidentally, by Reid’s pollster, Mark Mellman, showing that more than 50 percent of Americans surveyed oppose the immunity provision.

At issue is a legislative update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a Watergate-era law that requires the government to obtain court orders to spy on citizens who may be engaged in activities harmful to the state.

FISA became a household word two years ago when The New York Times disclosed that Americans were being spied on without court warrants, as required by law.

Despite an outcry from critics, Congress last summer approved a temporary six-month revision that legalized some of what had been going on. Shortly after, congressional Democrats had buyer’s remorse. Civil and constitutional rights groups complained the new law, known as the Protect America Act, would allow unprecedented surveillance of Americans. They called it a wholesale gutting of the constitutional protections under FISA.

Now, with the temporary law set to expire Feb. 1, Reid is under pressure to pass a new bill.

Congress is also being pushed by the White House to add a provision immunizing the telecoms from the dozens of lawsuits targeting their role in domestic eavesdropping.

The House passed an updated bill in November that reinstates some civil rights protections but does not grant the Bush administration’s immunity request. The vote split along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley supporting the bill and Republican Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller opposed.

Debate in the Senate began Wednesday and is expected to continue today as two competing bills hit the floor.

The White House dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday to the conservative Heritage Foundation, where he warned against limiting the intelligence agencies’ ability to track suspected terrorists.

Cheney said that if the telecoms are held liable, they may be reluctant to help the government in the future. “Most of us understand the war is real,” the vice president said.

Senate Republicans are expected to favor legislation that maintains the ability to wiretap Americans and grants the companies immunity. Several leading Democrats supported that bill in committee, and Fredrickson believes Reid has structured the debate in a way that gives them the upper hand.

Striking immunity will likely require a 60-vote majority among the 100 senators, which will be difficult to obtain.

Others say that regardless how Reid structures the debate, a floor battle seems likely.

“There are people involved in this at very different ends of the spectrum,” said a Judiciary committee aide. “This isn’t a piece of legislation that can be hashed out off the floor and then just voted on.”

Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin plan to oppose the immunity provisions. When the issue came up last month, Dodd held the floor for almost 10 hours. Reid shelved the bill rather than commit to a protracted debate.

Although unhappy liberals suggested replacing Reid with Dodd as majority leader, when asked about that last month, Dodd said he wasn’t interested. “Harry Reid is doing a tough job trying to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow.”

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