Democratic Congress approves war funding, legalizes domestic spying

In yet another moment of capitulation to the Bush White House, the democrats have approved billions of dollars more for the ongoing occupation of Iraq and if that isn’t shameful enough, the democrats also passed legislation that legalizes Bush’s domestic spying program.

It’s been quite a week for the “opposition party” in Washington.

House votes to provide $162 billion in war funding

By ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – A much-delayed Iraq war funding bill sailed through the House on Thursday, along with a doubling of college aid for returning troops and help for the unemployed and Midwestern flood victims.

Republican allies of President Bush provided the winning margin in a 268-155 vote to provide $162 billion to fund U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan well into next year.

Democrats opposed to the war, however, succeeded in using the Iraq funding bill as an engine to drive past White House resistance a sweeping revision to GI Bill college benefits and a 13-week extension of unemployment checks for those whose benefits have run out.

Lawmakers separately approved those domestic add-ons by a 416-12 vote, sending the combined bill to the Senate for a vote next week. The White House issued a statement supporting the legislation.

The measure also provides a quick $2.7 billion infusion of emergency flood relief for the Midwest, though more is expected to be needed to deal with the major losses in Iowa, Illinois and other states.

The bill would bring to more than $650 billion the amount provided by Congress for the war in Iraq since it started five years ago. Nearly $200 billion in additional funding has gone to operations in Afghanistan, according to congressional analysts.

It also would give Bush’s successor several months to set Iraq policy after taking office in January — and spares lawmakers the need to cast more war funding votes closer to Election Day.

“The way it’s been set up now, whoever … is president will have a few months to think through how we are going to extricate ourselves,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., a key negotiator.

The relatively brief debate featured only glimpses of the bitterness that consumed Congress last year as the new Democratic majority tried — and failed — to force troop withdrawals and other limits on Bush’s ability to conduct the war. Most war opponents expressed frustration and a sense of resignation at having to yield to the lame duck president.

“The president basically gets a blank check to dump this war on the next president,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “I was hoping George Bush would end his war while he’s president.”

Republicans cited progress in Iraq since Bush beefed up troop levels last year in an effort to create stability in the war-torn nation.

“Our troops have made tremendous gains, and forcing them to reverse course — as most in the Democratic majority want them to do — would be both irresponsible and reckless,” said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The new GI Bill essentially would guarantee a full scholarship at any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend, for people who serve in the military for at least three years. It is aimed at replicating the benefits awarded veterans of World War II and more than doubles the value of the benefit — from $40,000 today to $90,000.

The GI Bill measure, authored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., had such extraordinary support from both Democrats and Republicans that White House objections were easily overridden.

Administration representatives sought to curb its costs in closed-door talks, Obey said. Instead, the chief concession by Democrats was to add an administration-backed plan — costing $10 billion over 10 years — allowing veterans to transfer their benefits to their spouse or a child.

The White House tried much harder to kill the effort to extend unemployment benefits as part of the war funding bill. Just two weeks ago, it appeared the administration would probably prevail. But after the unemployment rate jumped a half-percentage point to a nationwide average of 5.5 percent, House Democrats engineered a veto-proof tally in support of the 13-week extension.

In late-stage talks with Boehner, a key figure in negotiating the overall agreement, Democrats dropped a plan to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks in states with particularly high unemployment rates. They also agreed to require people to have worked for 20 weeks in order to be eligible for the extended payments.

In another key concession, House Democrats dropped a provision to pay for the GI college benefits by imposing a half-percentage point income tax surcharge on incomes exceeding $500,000 for single taxpayers and incomes over $1 million earned by married couples.

The move was long expected, but nonetheless riled moderate and conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats upset that rules requiring additions to federal benefit programs be paid for with additional revenues or offsetting cuts to other programs.

Democrats, many Republicans and governors across the country emerged the victors in a battle with the White House to block new Bush administration rules designed to cut spending on Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled.

On war spending, the bill would prohibit U.S. money from being spent on Iraq reconstruction efforts unless Baghdad matches every dollar spent. But negotiators dropped a demand that Bush negotiate an agreement with Baghdad to subsidize the U.S. military’s fuel costs so troops operating in Iraq aren’t paying any more than Iraqi citizens are.

Last month, after a bitter debate, the House passed the unemployment benefits extension, the GI Bill improvements and a series of restrictions on Bush’s ability to conduct the war. The war funding part of the legislation failed amid the partisanship.

The Senate restored the war funding and folded in more than $10 billion in additional non-war spending backed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Most of that money is now eliminated.


House Grants Telecom Amnesty, Expands Spying Powers
By Ryan Singel

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives quickly passed a bill Friday that will expand the government’s ability to install blanket wiretaps inside the United States. It will also put an end to the lawsuits filed against the nation’s telecoms for helping the government spy on Americans without getting the necessary court orders.

The vote hands a significant victory to the White House, a few months after House Democrats forced a high-stakes showdown on the same issue in February.

The 293-129 vote came just 24 hours after the compromise bill was released on Thursday. Only one Republican voted against the bill, while Democrats split nearly evenly.

Speaking on behalf of the deal prior to the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended her support, saying that a bill was necessary and that the measure rightly expanded both intelligence-gathering powers and oversight.

“We took an oath to defend the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Pelosi said. “Good intelligence is necessary for us to know the plans of the terrorists, so we can’t not have a bill.”

Pelosi said she did not like the amnesty provision, saying the telecoms “come out of this with a taint.” But Pelosi added that the bill’s required inspector-general report was more likely to “learn the truth about the president’s surveillance program” than the lawsuits would have.

The bill allows the National Security Agency to order phone companies, ISPs and online service providers to turn over all communications that have one foreigner as a party to the conversation. If any Americans are party to the conversation, the government is supposed to mask their names, but these procedures to minimize privacy-invasion are easily overridden. The longstanding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required specific court orders to wiretap phone and internet lines inside the United States, but did not regulate spying conducted on non-U.S. soil.

Under the so-called FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the government would need a court order to wiretap an American overseas, regardless of where the tap was. Under the current regime, targeted taps aimed at Americans overseas requires the sign-off of the attorney general.

The nation’s telecoms will soon be freed from some 40 lawsuits accusing them of eavesdropping illegally, if the bill is passed into law as expected. The legality of the retroactive amnesty isn’t clear, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation will likely challenge the provision on constitutional grounds.

President Bush urged quick passage of the bill Friday morning, citing support of the bill (.pdf) by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

The White House began pushing for expanded powers last summer, after a secret spying court repeatedly struck down the administration’s attempt to use broad, nonspecific orders to conduct wiretaps inside the United States. Those rulings came just months after Bush bowed to political pressure and allowed judges to rule on his secret, five-year warrantless wiretapping program. Bush maintains, however, that he has the legal right to wiretap inside the United States without court approval, as part of his powers as commander in chief.

California Republican Dan Lungren described the measure as the “single most important bill we will vote on this year,” because the intelligence gathered could prevent having to send more troops abroad.

More than a handful of House Democrats assailed the bill prior to passage.

California lawmaker Barbara Lee referred to the days of J. Edgar Hoover and concluded, “This bill scares me.”

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Washington) slammed retroactive amnesty, asking “Don’t we realize there are some lines we should never cross?”

But the short debate and quick scheduling made it clear that the House leadership was confident the measure would easily pass, thus sparing conservative Democrats from campaign ads in the fall attacking them for not being tough on surveillance.

The Senate could take up the bill as soon as next week.


Democrats, GOP agree to telecom immunity deal

By PAMELA HESS, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – House and Senate leaders have agreed to a compromise surveillance bill that would effectively shield from civil lawsuits the telecommunications companies that helped the government wiretap phone and computer lines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without court permission.

The House was expected to pass the bill Friday, potentially ending a monthslong standoff about the rules for government wiretapping inside the United States.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the bill “balances the needs of our intelligence community with Americans’ civil liberties and provides critical new oversight and accountability requirements.”

The issue of legal protection for telecommunications companies that participated in warrantless wiretapping has been the largest sticking point. The Senate passed a bill that immunized them from lawsuits, but the House bill was silent on the matter.

The White House had threatened to veto any bill that did not shield the companies, which tapped lines at the behest of the president and attorney general but without permission from a special court established for that purpose, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. On Thursday, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the bill met the standards sought by Bush and that the president supported it.

Warrantless wiretapping went on for almost six years until it was revealed by The New York Times. Some 40 lawsuits have been filed against the companies by people and groups who think the government illegally eavesdropped on them.

The compromise bill would have a federal district court review certifications from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack. If the paperwork were in order, the judge would dismiss the lawsuit.

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the second-ranking Republican, predicted all the cases would go away.

Under the compromise, the district judge would for the first time be allowed to read the top-secret letters from Bush administration officials — usually the attorney general — to the companies requesting domestic wiretaps without court orders, according to Democratic aides. Each company got around 40 such letters, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The compromise bill would also require the inspectors general of the Justice Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies to investigate the wiretapping program to determine both its scope and legality. The report is due in a year.

Those two provisions, immunity and investigation, are meant to balance two competing concerns. Advocates for telecom protection say the companies acted in good faith and that the wiretaps were necessary to avert another terrorist attack. Opponents to immunity say civil lawsuits are the best way to determine whether the Bush administration illegally spied on Americans.

Not all Democrats were falling in line with the compromise. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said they opposed immunity. Feingold called the bill a “capitulation.”

“The House and Senate should not be taking up this bill, which effectively guarantees immunity for telecom companies alleged to have participated in the president’s illegal program, and which fails to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans at home,” Feingold said.

Several privacy and civil rights said Thursday they opposed the bill. The liberal political activist group was organizing a phone campaign Thursday to pressure House members to defeat it.

Sixty-eight senators were expected to support the compromise, enough to defeat any filibuster attempt. The previous Senate bill, which gave the companies blanket immunity, passed with 67 votes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, was expected to join that group because the new bill includes a measure she championed_ making FISA the only legal authority for wiretapping for intelligence purposes.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said passage of the bill by Congress was necessary before August when the first yearlong surveillance orders approved under a previous surveillance regime would run out.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment bill also would:

_Require FISA court permission to wiretap Americans who are overseas.

_Prohibit targeting a foreigner to secretly eavesdrop on an American’s calls or e-mails without court approval.

_Allow the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them.

_Allow eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided the government files required papers within a week.

_Prohibit the government from invoking war powers or other authorities to supersede surveillance rules in the future.

The new FISA bill, if it became law, would expire in 2012.


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