WASHINGTON A White House plan to broaden the National Security Agency’s wiretapping powers won a key procedural victory in the Senate on Thursday, as backers defeated a more restrictive plan by Senate Democrats that would have imposed more court oversight on government spying.
The vote moves the Bush administration a step closer toward the twin goals it has pursued for months: strengthening the N.S.A.’s ability to eavesdrop without court approval, while securing legal immunity for the phone companies that have helped the agency in its wiretapping operations.
At the same time, the White House agreed Thursday after months of resistance to give members of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees access to internal documents on the N.S.A.’s wiretapping program and the legal foundation for it.
That access could ultimately help persuade skeptical lawmakers in the House, which so far has rejected the immunity idea, to sign on to the White House’s plan.
“I have pushed for eight months to review this material,” said Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “I don’t know why the White House refused to give us access. Now we will be able to view documents used to set up the president’s warrantless wiretapping program.”
As the Senate opened debate on the security agency issue, it agreed by a convincing vote of 60-to-36 to set aside a bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have given a secret intelligence court a greater role in overseeing wiretaps on terrorism and espionage suspects. The defeated measure, while imposing more judicial restrictions, omitted immunity for the phone carriers that aided the agency in its wiretapping operations.
The Senate will instead consider a measure passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee that has the backing of the White House. It would give legal immunity to AT&T and the other phone companies against some 40 lawsuits growing out of their alleged roles in eavesdropping. It would also give the N.S.A. a freer hand to eavesdrop on foreign-based communications without judicial checks.
After the more restrictive measure was defeated, Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, said, “It appears the Senate is buckling under pressure from the White House.”
A final vote on the N.S.A. issue is not likely to come until next week. The Senate is trying to beat a Feb. 1 deadline for amending the wiretapping law. That is when a temporary six-month authorization approved last August expires.
President Bush urged Congress on Thursday to amend the law before the legislation expires, to prevent the eavesdropping law from reverting to the more restrictive standards that were in place before August.
The deadline “is just eight days from today,” Mr. Bush said in a statement, “yet the threat from Al Qaeda will not expire in eight days. If Congress does not act quickly, our national security professionals will not be able to count on critical tools they need to protect our nation, and our ability to respond quickly to new threats and circumstances will be weakened.”
Even if the Senate is able to agree on legislation before the Feb. 1 deadline, a conference committee with House lawmakers would have to be held to work out the differences between the two versions, which are likely to be substantial. Rather than try to beat the deadline, Senate Democrats have been pushing for a one-month extension of the August law to allow more time to debate the issue. Republicans have balked at that idea.