February 22, 2008 | By Hugh D'Andrade

Republicans Block FISA Talks

FISA legislation is stalled in the House. After walking out of meetings last week, House Republicans refused on Thursday to meet with congressional Democrats to discuss hammering out differences between the Senate and House bills. The message from the Republicans is clear: Absolutely no compromise, especially on the crucial question of retroactive immunity for telecoms.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer accused the Republicans of playing politics, and wondered whether they expect the House to simply rubberstamp the Senate bill:

...The decision to not participate, coupled with their vote against an extension of their bill - the Protect America Act - only serves to reinforce the perception that Republicans prefer to have a political issue rather than a strong new FISA bill in place as quickly as possible. Certainly Republicans do not really believe that the role of the House is to simply rubberstamp whatever bills the Senate passes.

In a press conference, the President made clear who was giving those marching orders to the rank-and-file in the House:

How do you compromise on something like granting liability for a telecommunications company? You can't. If we do not give liability protection to those who are helping us, they won't help us. And if they don't help us, there will be no program. And if there's no program, America is more vulnerable.

...See, what the American people must understand is that without help from the phone companies, there is no program. And these companies are going to be subject to multi-billion dollar lawsuits by trial lawyers, plaintiffs' attorneys. And it's going to drive them away from helping us -- unless they get liability protection -- prospective and retroactive.

Republican attempts to scuttle compromise on FISA may take other forms than simply refusing to discuss it. TechDirt reports that they may try a procedural maneuver called a discharge petition. If they can gather enough support for a re-named version of the bill, they can skip the debate and force a vote on the House floor -- effectively making an end run around the majority leadership.

Since discharge petitions are seen as a direct affront to leadership's control of the agenda, legislators are generally extremely reticent about signing them: The last time one was used successfully was in 2002, when it forced a vote on Shays-Meehan, the House version of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. Some members even have blanket policies against signing such petitions. And since they require a simple majority to become effective, Republicans would need to win over many of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats who have urged Pelosi to move forward with the Senate's version of the FISA bill. And even those willing to break with Pelosi on this issue may have qualms about slapping her in the face quite so overtly.

The House should stand firm, and insist on its version of FISA reform, the imperfect but far superior RESTORE Act, which does not include immunity for telecom lawbreakers. Call or email your representative ONE MORE TIME to urge them to hold the line!

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