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House of Reps passes FISA bill sans telecom immunity provision

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The US House of Representatives on Friday narrowly passed the latest version of a controversial terrorist surveillance bill that defied President Bush's demand that it grant telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for cooperating in past warrantless wiretapping.

By a margin of 213-197, the House passed the measure, known as the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. It updates the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by giving intelligence officers more time to apply for warrants after a wiretap has begun. Democrats and Republicans largely agree the additional flexibility is necessary to keep up with changes in communications.

But the House Democrats have clashed sharply with Republicans over whether telecoms who previously assisted in warrantless wiretaps should be shielded from about 40 lawsuits that allege the cooperation amounted to a breach of individuals' privacy rights.

Congressional members left Washington shortly after the vote for spring break. [Party at Spitzer's house, y'all - Ed] Some lawmakers say the issue may not be resolved until after a new president takes office in January.

The bill also rankles many Republicans because it gives federal inspectors authority to investigate the warrantless surveillance program, which the Bush administration started after the 9/11 attacks. In addition, it would establish a bipartisan commission to examine the activities intelligence agencies took under that program.

The Senate has already passed a FISA measure that includes the retroactive immunity provision, and Senate Republicans have vowed not to compromise on the issue. Bush has also promised to veto any legislation that reaches his desk that doesn't include immunity. On Thursday, he said a vote for the House bill "would make our country less safe."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rebuffed him, saying: "The president is wrong, and he knows that." ®

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