The Senate voted Monday against extending the eavesdropping law beyond Feb. 1, increasing political pressure to pass a new version of the bill this week.
The existing law will expire Feb. 1, a deadline the White House, intelligence officials and congressional Republicans are using to push the Senate into adopting a bill that would also protect from civil lawsuits the telecommunications companies that allowed their customers to be wiretapped without court approval.
The Senate vote was 48-45, 12 votes short of the 60 needed to extend the law. Also on Monday, House Democratic leaders delayed until Tuesday a vote on whether to extend the law.
The White House threatened to veto any short-term extension.
“We don’t need a patchwork of extensions. What we need is to get this bill passed,” White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Tuesday.
He said the White House would like to see lawmakers move forward on a bill and get it to the president’s desk before the law expires on Friday. Bush plans to push for the law in a speech Thursday in Las Vegas, Nev.
The expiration of the law is more of a political deadline than a practical one, congressional Democrats say. All existing electronic surveillance activities can continue uninterrupted for at least a year from their commencement.
New domestic eavesdropping activities, however, would follow the old procedures established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 30-year old law created to dictate when the government has to get permission from a secret court to tap Americans’ phone and computer lines.
That law has been interpreted to require court approval for nearly all domestic wiretaps conducted for intelligence purposes. U.S. intelligence agencies complain that the requirement ties them up in red tape and slows their ability to conduct surveillance on potential terrorists. The new law gives the government more latitude to eavesdrop without court approval.
The House passed a version of the new eavesdropping bill last fall, one that does not provide for telecom immunity.
The Senate is still wrangling over a Senate Intelligence Committee version of the bill, backed by the White House, that does shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits.